It has been 17 years since British mathematician Clive Humby pronounced data to be the “new oil”, but a new survey suggests Australian business leaders still haven’t figured out how to manage their data – and lack the data-focused culture needed to address the issue.

Fully 31 per cent of the 1,072 Australian respondents to Salesforce’s Untapped Data Research – a global study involving nearly 10,000 business leaders – admitted that they are overwhelmed by the amount of data being generated in their businesses.

And while 45 per cent said they do not understand their data because it is too complex or not accessible enough, 36 per cent of respondents admitted they simply cannot generate insights from the data their systems are creating and collecting.

The figures – which are higher than global averages – not only highlight the lingering problems that businesses face in dealing with data, but suggest that Australian companies are lagging their international counterparts when it comes to capitalising on the masses of data they are collecting.

That’s more than a little problem given that 7 in 10 respondents said that data is critical to their organisation’s decision making, and 76 per cent agree that data “helps reduce uncertainty and make more accurate decisions”.

In a time of great economic uncertainty, the inability to effectively turn data into relevant decisions is a major problem – yet 69 per cent of the Australian survey respondents admitted they aren’t using data to adjust pricing to account for inflation and other macroeconomic changes.

Similarly, despite data’s potential to help companies achieve their broader corporate goals, most companies admitted being quite immature in this regard: just 27 per cent said they use data to shape their strategy when expanding the business into new markets, and just 22 per cent are using data to guide their climate targets.

“Business leaders are experiencing one of the toughest economic markets of our time, but they have an untapped advantage for better decision-making: their data,” Salesforce chief information officer Juan Perez said as the results were released.

“The secret to driving true insights is marrying data with analytics,” he continued. “A combination of data, analytics, and the necessary data skills enables companies to maximise their technology investments and uncover opportunities that drive business strategy and strengthen customer trust.”

Building a data culture

For all the recognition of data’s potential benefits, the yawning gap between what businesses are actually achieving highlights the importance of building an effective data culture within any organisation.

Culture change takes time, says Czarina Deldio, business analytics and insights manager with hot water company Rheem Australia, who joined the company several years ago with a remit to increase the company’s strategic use of business data and analytics.

In a company that has been around for nearly 100 years, Deldio told Gartner’s most recent Data and Analytics Summit, “culture is really ingrained in our people – so it’s slow and steady wins the race” when working to transition to a data culture.

Rheem has been steadily increasing its use of operational data in its administrative system, complementing the platform with manual processes to provide what Deldio called “a need now for faster, more accurate, more detailed information.”

To be most effective, she explained, adoption of data analytics needs to be driven not by customer demands – or the analytics team’s perception of customer demands – but by the simple question of ‘what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?’

“Leave your ego at the door,” she advised. “It’s not about you, it’s not about me, and it’s not even about the customer half the time; they don’t really know what they want. They just think they know what they want.”

To guide business users towards better use of their data, Salesforce recommends businesses invest heavily in data literacy training – a concerted training effort that helps them back away from non-specific promises about analytics’ capabilities, and instead focus on identifying and resolving the problems they want to solve.

The need for better training is widely understood, Salesforce found, with 77 per cent of survey respondents saying they are going to continue or increase their spending on data skills development and training.

Widespread training not only normalises the use of data for problem solving, but reduces personal bias and allows the data to speak for itself – with 70 per cent of respondents agreeing that data helps minimise the influence of personal opinions in business conversations.

“When integrated and leveraged correctly, data has huge potential to build efficiency and trust among both customers and employees,” Perez said, adding that data literacy “supports business goals and improves resilience during the tough economic climate.”