One of my first jobs in data analytics involved migrating customer analytics systems. It required updating all the reports, dashboards and underlying queries, and delivering a bunch of new content. This was tough because we had to make sure that the custom work done on their existing system was ported over to the new one. The system didn’t originally support this kind of upgrade, so the default and custom content were mixed and it involved a healthy dose of diffing and checking. In other words, the kind of thing you assign to the new guy.

After we did a few dozen of these upgrades and learned a few hard lessons about what worked and didn’t, we settled on having an ‘executive handoff’ meeting. Essentially, get the business users in the room and make sure they know about all the new stuff we installed. Most of them only had a vague idea at best about what was in the new system.

After doing our half hour dog and pony show I’d open the floor for questions. More often than not someone would ask:

“What reports should I be looking at?”

The first time this came up I gave a canned answer about some of the new features. I didn’t feel great about it. Here was a person essentially asking me the most important question in data: What is there in here I should care about?

After a few dozen more of these hand off meetings I settled into my favorite answer:

“It depends on how you want to run your business.”

I followed with a few descriptions of how this might apply. First, if you’re a sales volume focused business that might mean you keep more inventory, so keeping higher on hand would make sense. So look at your inventory reporting and see how it compares to your sales numbers. If you’re trying to compete on margins, maybe you want to keep inventory costs low and longer lead times might be okay.

Consuming business data is a lot like consuming vegetables. Everybody knows they should do it, but very few have any sort of plan for doing it and what they expect to accomplish. Every data initiative needs to start from “what do I want to know?” and the more pertinent question of “what will I then do about it?”