Group of business professionals in a dark room standing in front of a large data display screen with information.
Data must be given the attention it deserves to encourage progressive change in the boardroom © Getty
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An unknown intruder breaks into your organisation and steals work that took your entire workforce more than 20 days to produce. Next year the same thing happens. And the next. Each year the amount taken increases: last year, 30 days’ worth of work was stolen.

The cumulative toll of the break-ins affects everyone in the company, sending morale plummeting. Shareholders become anxious. The chances are, as a board member, you would be prepared to invest a substantial amount to prevent the thefts recurring.

This dystopian whodunnit is no fictional nightmare: based on an annual survey of more than 30,000 employees in 167 UK companies, the “thefts” are the average number of annual working days per worker lost to absenteeism or presenteeism (when employees come to work but are not productive). 

That the trend is worsening suggests that not enough company boards are acting on this intelligence, perhaps because it somehow seems less real than a one-off physical break-in. With the attention of many boardrooms on the productivity puzzle, that is a missed opportunity: smarter use of data might be the way to solve it.

Chart showing 30 out of 252 worker days lost to absenteeism and presenteeism

Peter Simpson, chief executive of Anglian Water, cites an eight-fold return on investment in wellness programmes for his workers, which have reduced absenteeism and improved customer satisfaction with staff. Fewer illness claims also mean lower inflation in private healthcare premiums.

Yet examples of such data-driven interventions are rare, illustrative of a much broader culture in organisations where data is rarely given the full attention it deserves when it comes to decision-making.

So what can data analysts in organisations do to get their messages heard?

Board members and senior managers certainly need to consider new ways of thinking that give primacy to data. But reasoning with data requires what psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes as “System 2 thinking” — the rational, reasoning self — and a move away from the “gut intuition” of System 1. That’s not an easy culture change to achieve overnight.

Freelance consultant, author and data visualisation expert Andy Kirk believes there is a duty of care on both analysts and their audiences to develop skills, particularly in relation to how data is communicated through an organisation.

According to Mr Kirk, many senior managers “neither have the visual literacy nor the confidence to be exposed to [data presentations] they don't understand — and they just don't like change”. Mr Kirk describes it as a kind of “Stockholm syndrome” in data form — “I’ve always had my report designed like this, I don't want anything different”. 

Meanwhile, data analysts need to nurture their communication skills, taking a responsibility for encouraging change and critical thinking, not just being “the data people”. Acting as agents of change, they need to be effective marketers of their skills and sensitive educators that show a nuanced appreciation of the needs of the business.

Organisations that bind data to the business model — and data literacy to the board — will inevitably stand a better chance of achieving long-term change. Mr Kirk cites the recent hiring of Darren Burgess as “head of high performance” by Arsenal Football Club as an example of a senior appointment with data-driven responsibilities that support a long-term business strategy.

Getting data into the boardroom on a valid and permanent basis might fix another one of the problems Mr Kirk sees in the industry: “Vertical career paths are a massive issue for analysts — before going freelance I had reached the ceiling in my role as an information manager at Leeds University.”

The truth is that data in the boardroom enjoys a patchy reputation, typified by dull, overlong PowerPoint presentations. A cynic might suggest that even the most recent addition to boardroom structures — the chief data officer — is used by many boards simply as a device to prevent other members needing to worry about the numbers.

But there are techniques that can be used to encourage progressive change in the boardroom.

First, use key performance indicators that are meaningful and appropriate for answering the central questions about the business and the market it operates in. Try to eliminate “inertia metrics” — ie “we report this because we always do”.

Next, rework boardroom materials so that they encourage board members to read data, preferably in advance of meetings, rather than glance at it during one. This might mean transforming the dreaded PowerPoint deck into something a little more journalistic, a move that will help engage “System 2” thinking.

Finally, and above all, be aware of unconscious bias in the boardroom and focus on debunking it. As Mr Kahneman demonstrated in his Nobel-prize winning work, most of us are poor intuitive statisticians with biases that lurk deep in our “System 1” view of the world. There is insight, value and memorability in the surprise that comes with highlighting our own ignorance — so use data to shine a light on surprising trends, not to simply reinforce that which is already known.

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