What do you think when you hear the phrase “Beyond the Table”? What kind of table are we talking about?
A data table? A conference table? Maybe a kitchen table? A banquet table? How about a poker table? What exactly is a table, anyway?
At its essence, a table is a space where things get done.
Other qualities might come into play when we think about tables in a metaphorical sense. For instance, tables are flat. Tables are also finite: there are only a limited number of spaces at a table, or seats around it. And often they come with rules—sometimes very complicated ones governed by generations of etiquette—about who belongs where and how everyone is supposed to behave.
In business, “the table” represents decision-making authority. It’s where we as executives meet to set strategy. “A seat at the table” represents power. Having a seat at the table means participating in or influencing the decisions, direction, and values of a company.
Yet recently it seems we’ve begun to see more and more cracks in the traditional decision-makers’ table. In the face of new remote work habits, personal devices, social media, and the general democratization of information sources, the authority that once stemmed from the board room doesn’t seem to carry the weight it once did.
Many businesses—most recently and dramatically United Airlines—have learned that social media and instant connectedness are a double-edged sword at best. As John Bailey has observed, it typically takes a business 21 hours to generate crisis communications—during which time Twitter and the web of media outlets are exclusively in control of the message. If you believe the only thing standing between your company and financial ruin is the quick-witted intern handling your company’s official Twitter account, then strategic planning could start to feel like a luxury. (Much more on this in a later post!)
Repeatedly, business leaders are encouraged to respond to these pressures by “expanding the table,” “inviting more [or different] people to the table,” or “bringing new ideas to the table.” Likewise, managers and functional experts are urged to “earn” or even “demand” their “seat at the table.” Some have even suggested changing the purpose of the table from strategic decision-making to listening, curating ideas, or performing analysis.
A few years back, Polly LaBarre summarized a number of the pressures on the traditional decision-makers’ table in business, ending with a challenge to managers and executives to “re-set your own table.” That message stayed with me—but in the years since it came out, it seems the role of “the table” as a source of quality, strategic leadership has continued to erode. Why is this?
To explore this question, let’s go back and look at a different kind of table.
Tables are meant to contain it. Name it. And, most importantly, allow it to be correlated with other data points, in order to arrive at meaningful conclusions. Data tables are everywhere in business (not to mention everywhere else), embedded in every tool we use to try to make sense of the business world: ERP, CRM, SCM, BPM, DMS, ECM.
Yet in the case of data, too, tables are less useful in business than they used to be. Why?
The thing about data tables is that within databases, and every relational system that uses them, you have to plan your structure first, then set up your tables, and then populate them with data. This means you have to either know in advance, or make some sweeping assumptions about, the kind of information you have—so you can name it, format it, set some basic parameters, and associate it with the right metadata. As with a banquet table or board table, everything in a data table has a specific place, title, and role to play, defined well in advance.
But what if you don’t know exactly what data you’ve got? Or what if you have so much that you can’t process it or match it up with other data points quickly enough?
For more than a decade now, businesses have been living with an explosion of “unstructured data”: juicy qualitative insights buried in digital assets. Electronic documents, email and messaging communications, images, schematics, videos. This list goes on. As leaders, we sense that these unstructured assets are where “the good stuff” is. But how can it be reached? And what can we do with it?
What if you don’t know exactly what data you’ve got? Or what if you have so much that you can’t process it or match it up with other data points quickly enough?
Even with structured data such as transactions, the volume and pace of data production are far higher than anyone can reasonably keep up with. But businesses have to keep up—because even the best ERP system doesn’t make strategic decisions. The best it can do is spit out reports based on people’s best guesses about what data they have, and what it means.
Semi-structured data, such flows of sensor data, pose an even greater challenge. These sweeping rivers of data afford a near-real-time view of how equipment and processes are working. Is it possible store, track, and comprehend such huge volumes of information, without ripping the data out of its real-time context and subjecting it to conventional analysis?
The bottom line is this: businesses are drowning in information. And the volume and kind of data we have can’t be contained in traditional structures such as tables. And—here’s the thing—it shouldn’t be. Because to really make the most of this kind of information, you need to be able to make qualitative inferences, not just static relational reports. Systems can be taught to make qualitative distinctions and learn from their own experience. But systems that learn can’t rely only on relational tables.
So in the world of data management, “going beyond the table” is not just a metaphorical idea. It is a necessity. The structures needed to turn masses of data into action and profit are not flat, or stable, or filled with named articles. In fact, they might not even be “structures” at all—they might be approaches, or algorithms, or guided interactions, or perhaps something else entirely.
Now let’s look again at the decision-makers’ table.
We know that we need to “bring more to the table” to accommodate rapidly changing customer needs, work culture, and technology infrastructure. For the past few years, the answer for what to bring to the table has resoundingly been, “DATA”.
As the volume of data blossoms (or explodes), leaders seeking innovation continue to lean hard into the promise of data-driven decisions. But it can be frustrating—especially when the some of the biggest successes seem to come from leaders who just skim the data and then rely on “gut instinct”. (The flip side, which we don’t hear about, is how many have tried that approach and failed.) I do believe we’re on the cusp of realizing genuine, comprehensive, data-driven decision-making. However, I understand why, at this moment, some can feel frustrated by masses of unintelligible data that, on their own, don’t “do” anything obvious to drive the business forward.
But what if they did? What if information was able to flow, not into giant databases for reporting, but directly to the people and tools that know what it means and how to use it? What new strategic directions might open up? Are you ready?
Leadership is on a journey; data are the map. To complete this leg of the journey and really make the most of data—in all its chaotic glory—we can’t just “bring it to the table.” We have to change the way the information is made, shared, and used for strategic purposes. Deep down, this means also changing the way strategic, directional business decisions are made. The decision-makers’ table—where everyone has a known, proscribed role to fill—isn’t big enough, or flexible enough, or nimble enough, or visionary enough to look forward into the flowing current of data, rather than backward at analytics. Adding more seats or changing the faces at the table won’t change that fact. We’re not talking about re-setting the table, or rearranging the chairs. We’re talking about getting rid of the table and building something new in its place.
So here in this forum, when we talk about “Going Beyond the Table,” we really do mean it in every sense. Stay tuned!
“Easy to Criticise—Harder to Get It Right,” by at Ketchum Blog on April 21, 2017 (http://blog.ketchum.com/easy-to-criticise-harder-to-get-it-right/)
“Who Gets a Seat at the Table?” by Polly LaBarre at Harvard Business Review on December 13, 2011 (https://hbr.org/2011/12/who-gets-a-seat-at-the-table)
“‘Everybody Bring Data to the Table’, Teradata 2013,” by Nicole Giannopoulos at RIS News on October 22, 2013 (https://risnews.com/everybody-bring-data-table-teradata-2013)