Data strategy leader David van der Laan on data-driven growth

Data strategy expert David van der Laan on a range of topics where business, growth, and innovation meet data, analytics, and data strategy with a focus on value and real-life lessons.

In a previous interview, Barbara Van Den Haute explained why data sharing and the API economy are drivers of business growth and what role a government can play to kickstart data-sharing initiatives.

At the occasion of an interview series for “The 5th conference on Wired for Growth,” in which the interview with keynote speaker Van Den Haute fits, we also asked data strategy leader David van der Laan a few questions.

Make sure you have a system in place that guarantees a consciously structured flow from ideation through execution and follow up (David van der Laan)

Main topics: data-driven growth, data management challenges, managing a team of data strategists, data maturity, and the role of a data Center of Excellence (CoE) in innovation, digital transformation, and business goals overall.

Data strategy and analytics expert David van der Laan

David van der Laan is responsible for the “Center of Excellence Lead Data Strategy & Analytics” of Telenet Group, a leading entertainment and telecommunication services provider in Belgium.

Operating under the brand name Telenet, Telenet Group is quoted on Euronext Brussel with Liberty Global (a global leader in converged video, broadband, and communications with operations in six European countries) owning a direct stake of 58.28% in Telenet Group Holding.

Before becoming responsible for the “Center of Excellence Lead Data Strategy & Analytics,” David worked as Product Owner Business Insights and Data Evangelist at Telenet, which he joined after working for, among others, The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Almost any company today would benefit from having a bunch of smart data experts working with them extremely closely, thinking along with them to identify where data & analytics can make a difference, and prioritizing where to put their limited resources based on business value (David van der Laan)

At “The 5th conference on Wired for Growth,” which takes place on October 14, 2021, in Mechelen (Belgium), David will present one of the sessions on decision-making with insights, data, and analytics.

Data strategy success requirements from idea to execution

David, at Telenet, you lead a team of 30 data strategists, among others driving the direction and execution of the company’s data strategy and integrating analytics into the organization’s fabric. You already have an impressive career in business engineering and information systems and are interested in all aspects of strategy and growth. If you look back at what you learned and at what happens in organizations now, what would you say are some critical aspects of data strategy and analytics in the context of business growth?

David van der Laan: let me attempt to tackle that question from several perspectives.

When I think about strategy, I envision a timeline. Whereas people typically think “from left to right” on a timeline (I’m doing this today, tomorrow I’ll do that, etc.), the art is to flip that around and start thinking “from right to left” (I want to end up roughly “there” in 2 years, so that means next quarter I need to be doing ABC and today I should be doing XYZ).

Secondly, to have a valuable perspective on “where we want to end up” at the end of a specific timeframe, you need a good understanding of the playing field and possibilities inherent to that playing field.

A common thread in movements such as Agile is creating transparency and structurally making sure the right conversation occurs. I believe that in data & analytics, that is a game-changer. (David van der Laan)

In our data strategy, we have identified seven playing fields where we believe data and analytics can (and often already do) make a difference and detailed in a precise way what exactly we believe we could / should be doing in the years to come. An example of one playing field is “Value based network management,” i.e., being smart about our network investments.

Thirdly, it can not be a paper exercise. To turn ‘thinking’ into ‘doing,’ you need to have the right people around the table and get them to “want it,” too. And that’s not just the right ‘data people’; you need the right partners from across the organization to (want to) join the effort. We also push to be as explicit as possible in the value contribution we expect for each topic and prioritize quite ruthlessly before moving from ‘idea’ to ‘execution.’

In my experience, the trap in more technical fields is too many paper exercises happening in isolation and only involving experts. I’d say the way to really make a difference is to approach the topic from the perspective of your stakeholders, get them on board with you, make them want to join the effort, show and teach them the fundamentals to enable a true conversation and make sure you have a system in place that guarantees a consciously structured flow from ideation through execution and follow up.

Successfully capturing the potential benefits of data and analytics includes ensuring that the complete system makes sense, encompassing strategy, tools, people, goals, and way more –  budgets, processes, ecosystem thinking, recruiting, training & retention, etc.

A true challenge for data professionals is that ‘outsiders’ often impact budgets and timelines. At times, ill-informed decisions are made by ‘non-data people’ that significantly impact the data organization. (David van der Laan)

Tackling data and analytics challenges

With the increase of data volumes and proliferation of data sources, we dispose of ever more possibilities to transform our businesses, make data-driven decisions, automate and create business and customer value. Yet, many organizations struggle to unlock the – full – value of data and organize their data management. What do you see as common challenges and solutions to overcome them, and what role can relatively recent evolutions such as DataOps play in this regard?

David van der Laan: In my perspective, the struggles related to data and analytics can be split into two groups: (1) the challenges data & analytics experts struggle with within their field of expertise and (2) the challenges related to non-experts outside the data organization. 

The first group of challenges typically receives sufficient attention from experts within the field, with smart people thinking about tough questions like “how can we better organize our data flows?”, “how do we organize our data management/data governance?” and “should we move to cloud?”. 

The second group of challenges is where immediate benefits can be quickly captured at most companies. Inherently, most data experts want to work on data topics, and most don’t want to spend a large part of their time ‘educating’ our more business-oriented colleagues. A common thread in movements such as around Agile is creating transparency and structurally making sure the right conversation occurs. I believe that in data & analytics, that is a game-changer.

If I would be pressed to choose, I’d say the one thing “data people” can do to beat the struggle and frustration is to make sure they have a seat at the table in the right “non-data” discussions with the right “non-data” stakeholders. (David van der Laan)

A true challenge for data professionals is that ‘outsiders’ often impact budgets and timelines. At times, ill-informed decisions are made by ‘non-data people’ that significantly impact the data organization. Those decisions can even be smaller day-to-day decisions, such as an updated or turned off application – without data people being aware – which causes ripple effects across the data landscape.

If I would be pressed to choose, I’d say the one thing “data people” can do to beat the struggle and frustration is to make sure they have a seat at the table in the right “non-data” discussions with the right “non-data” stakeholders.

Inside a data strategy and analytics CoE

As mentioned before, you’re leading the Center of Excellence Lead Data Strategy & Analytics. What types of organizations, in your view, should consider having such a CoE (Center of Excellence), and what should they pay attention to when starting one up or making one as efficient as possible?

David van der Laan: Before diving in, perhaps it’s good to clarify what our CoE is and who’s in it.

  • We have data strategists who are basically at the intersection between business & data and are responsible for running our identification, prioritization, and execution of topics – each taking full ownership of one topic in execution per quarter.
  • Our data scientists build predictive models based on extensive historical datasets to uncover hidden patterns we can use to make informed predictions.
  • Our insights & reporting analysts build reports, dashboard, perform deep-dive data analyses and translate into actionable business insights.
  • Our CRM analysts enable targeted communication with our customers in the context of in-market experiments we run. We make sure our approach allows us to draw solid conclusions by ensuring campaign setup (ABCD…) makes sense and running post-campaign analyses.

When it comes to our work, one core element is what we call a ‘boost topic.’ Every quarter we select six boost topics from a list of fifteen candidates based on value and feasibility. We then assign a data strategist to each topic and staff a team of ~5 in total.

That team then ‘clicks in with the business team closest to the subject matter the topic is focused on, and our people fully join (all meetings of) that business team during the quarter we work with them. In a non-pandemic situation, that also means physically moving desks.

So that being said, I believe our concept is well-adjusted to scaling up or down. In that sense, I don’t see a reason to say small companies shouldn’t attempt this way of working.

In my perspective, almost any company today would benefit from having a bunch of smart data experts working with them extremely closely, thinking along with them to identify where data & analytics can make a difference, and prioritizing where to put their limited resources based on business value.

Every quarter we select six ‘boost topics’ from a list of fifteen candidates based on value and feasibility within our Center of Excellence Lead Data Strategy & Analytics. We then assign a data strategist to each topic. (David van der Laan)

Workers and HR for a mindset of personal and business growth

During the pandemic, you wrote a book, ‘The Fast Track: How to quickly get recognized as a crucial contributor and accelerate your career, that promises readers they will look at the world of work differently and have a mindset to accelerate their careers. The world of work is evolving, among others, with the pandemic as an accelerator of some evolutions. Can you share some advice on how organizations can accelerate business growth through work- and HR-related measures and, the other way around, how employees can have a mindset of growth?

David van der Laan: I believe in the power of teams, but I also believe that there is a lot to be gained by helping every single individual become the best they can be.

What I have hoped to convey in my book are the lessons I have learned so far in that regard; with no doubt a lot left to learn in the years to come, I’m sure the book is incomplete in some respects. When you refer to “a mindset of growth,” that is precisely one of the points I try to bring across in my book.

But I have attempted to go beyond and listed eleven such specific perspectives on the world of work that help me impact the organization. Beyond that, I moved to individual habits such as “always make sure you know what success looks like in what you’re trying to achieve/working toward” and “always be on the lookout for no-regrets moves.”

When it comes to business growth through HR and work-related measures, I believe organizations should continue focusing on how teams collaborate and are organized. But on top of that, I think that focus should extend to the level of individuals, teaching them very explicitly some things that don’t neatly fit into the skills description of a single job.

That includes how to navigate the corporate landscape, that it’s OK and even desired to speak up, how to structure their thinking in a way that others understand, and so on.

Turning data into value at “Wired for Growth”

A final question in the context of the event. As said at “The 5th conference on Wired for Growth,” you have an afternoon session on informing decision-making with insights, data, and analytics. What can attendees expect in terms of topics with perhaps a few takeaways and thoughts on data as an enabler of business growth?

David van der Laan: in the session, you can expect two things, namely (1) I will be extremely specific in terms of the story and examples I bring, and (2) we will cover much ground related to this topic.

To offer already some perspective on the lessons I have learned from experience and would like to share, we will cover items such as (a) how to find a healthy balance between centralization and decentralization of data experts; (b) why you need “data strategists” in your company; (c) why you need to open up the “data black box” so everyone understands how data & analytics contribute to the business, and how we do that at Telenet, and (d) why you need to turn data into a value discussion.

Turning data into a value discussion and understanding what data strategy and analytics can do for business – if the business also understands its role. That seems like a perfect way to conclude this interview where business meets data strategy. Thanks for your time, David!

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