Anthony Howcroft.png

I spent more than ten years selling very large scale data warehouse  (VLDW) systems, and working with customers as they sought to deliver insights that could provide real business value. Early on I noticed a pattern of success, and sometimes failure, amongst my clients, and it had nothing to do with technology. It was about questions.

The VLDW market was used to handling incredibly large volumes of structured information (terabytes initially, but eventually scaling to petabytes), and during my decade of selling VLDW appliances, the market had to learn how to co-exist with the new realm of big data - which was initially defined as unstructured or semi-structured data sourced from sensors, weblogs, social media sites, email servers and more, residing on both sides of the corporate firewall. The lure of combining the purified corporate knowledge from the Enterprise Data Warehouse with the chaotic, wild, streaming data beyond was powerful, and held the promise of answering questions that were not possible to consider before.

Instead of asking which customers had churned this month (retroactive reporting), an organisation might now ask which social influencers they should wine & dine to prevent the most churn next month (predictive analytics). While these type of questions had been possible before, the breadth and depth of publicly accessible data made these queries far more effective. Which meant that one of my key questions to a prospective customer, to understand their ambition and goals, was "If you could ask anything, what would you ask?" The answers, and the subsequent projects, revealed a dark secret. Many organisations are not very good at asking (high quality) questions.

It comes down to this; if you have access to vast realms of advanced information, your ability to make good decisions and choices is based on your ability to ask good questions - and interpret the answers. Note that I didn't say 'the right' question, as more commonly it is a pattern of questions, not one simple killer question. Unfortunately, very few organisations have made 'questioning' a core capability, in the way that they might have done with other initiatives. I have yet to meet a Centre of Excellence for Questioning. In fact, in many places, good questioning is actually discouraged.

What I discovered is that repeatedly the organisations that made most effective use of VLDW technology were those that asked better questions, and had a culture where constructive questioning (or even conflict, based on trust) was permitted and even encouraged. They were also environments that encouraged people to think out of the box, be creative, explore a little off the map. Of course, every company says it does those things - but if you are honest with yourself you should probably ask some tough questions about how much you really encourage good debate.

The Test

Do you have questioning as a core capability in your organisation? Let's test that: see how many of these questions you can answer yes to:

  1. In meetings, we encourage people with a diverse opinion to speak up, and we reward them for doing that
  2. In the last 2 years, we ran a training course specifically on 'questioning techniques'
  3. We have a technology platform that lets end-users (not just scientists or specialists) ask complex questions in an easy fashion
  4. We can ask questions across all of our data sources, including structured, semi or unstructured, public data, and external third party (e.g. supplier) data
  5. We use different questioning methodologies in separate parts of the business (e.g. Bloom's taxonomy, SPIN, Reid) as we understand that questioning may have different goals

If you answered yes to 4 or 5 of these, then you clearly take questioning seriously. If not, then you need to ask one last question:

How I will my organisation compete when my competitors ask and solve better questions than us?