What does 'data-driven' mean to me?

Words are important. Have you heard this phrase 'data-driven'? I expect you have. I don't like it, but hey there are lots of things I don't like that are really popular nowadays.

One of the issues with buzzy management shorthand phrases that their use actively inhibits a shared understanding. One person's 'data-driven' might not be the same as another's, but they're all there in the boardroom [1] going 

"Franck, our strategical approach is data-driven and leverages machine learning cloud AI capabilities"

"Yes Wayne, 100% data-driven insightisation of our asset base"

"Totally Sandra, leveragise our data-driven operating model"

or similar.

For a while, I was working on a 'data-driven' website, where I think 'data-driven' was being used to mean "there is data from internal applications that automatically goes onto our public facing website"

I always found that a bit strange, because (to my mind) that's just a legitimate way to approach making a website [2] and I don't understand why you would make part of what’s going on behind the pixels on the screen a thing of note. I don't think everybody involved understood that was what the phrase was being used to mean either. 'Data-driven' had become meaningless, and that meaning vacuum got filled with negative connotations and disdain, like a sad golem.

Say what you mean

I always preferred 'data-driven' meaning "we make decisions based on evidence". However, as I've worked on data strategy and (particularly) measurement in the past year, "we make decisions based on evidence" is also problematic.

Why are you making decisions?

Understanding intent and organisation's direction and focus is essential. If this is lacking in any way it can be disproportionately hard to develop goals and measures. Clear statements of intent really help to frame decisions.

So now to me 'data-driven' means "we know where we're going, and we make decisions based on evidence". But it's still not right.

What evidence?

Maybe your data is absolute trash. It's worth really getting into where the data has come from. Maybe you've really gone to town on a rigorous qualitative approach that's disproportionate to the task. Maybe you've taken a qualitative approach that's disproportionate to the task, or that's going to be expensive to establish as a repeated measure.

So now to me 'data-driven' means "we know where we're going, and we make decisions based on sound evidence that is contextually appropriate".

Sure, it's a bit of a mouthful. This is why I'll never have a career in marketing. 

I believe it's always worth taking the time to make sure there's a common understanding though. What does 'data-driven' mean to you?


[1] This is a fictional scenario and Franck, Wayne, and Sandra are fictional characters

[2] Not all websites