Self-aware organisations — Data is the new mirror

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Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

Data is the new oil! It’s almost certain that data is now the world’s most valuable resource as it propels the five most valuable firms in the world. Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft collectively have a lion’s share of 2.5 quintillion or so bytes of data we generate every day. Yet, we don’t seem to have clarity on fundamentals such as who should own the data or how we should value it. Indeed, data could be as effective as oil in creating prosperity but at what risk? Its unlimited supply, intangibility and propensity for exponential growth is something human intelligence is yet to fathom in its entirety. We understand the primary use of oil but when it comes to using data there is more unknown than known.

The unrelenting corporate scandals in Australia and the rest of the world have shone the light on some serious gaps in our awareness of business issues. Data and insights around these issues seem to fail to bubble up to the boardrooms. When they do, their poor signal to noise ratio renders them inadequate to meaningfully inform decisions. How do we enable organisations to be more self-aware and conscionable? Obviously, data is key in stimulating awareness but it’s worthwhile exploring the role of collective awareness in cultivating right behaviours that lead to effective and conscionable decisions. The most important question for any organisation is whether the data they collect appropriately reflect their business? If so, is there sufficient collective awareness to generate useful insights and meaningful decisions?

A mirror? Let me explain…

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Photo by drmakete lab on Unsplash

Recently, a tiny tropical reef fish called cleaner wrasse took the so-called ‘mirror test’. No, it didn’t volunteer. It’s a test used for decades to understand an animal’s ability to visually recognise itself in a mirror. Only an elite group of animals have passed this test so far including chimpanzees and dolphins. The results were so amazing that they are now questioning the veracity of the test itself. The fish passed it.

Obviously, we humans as individuals pass this test with flying colours every time we find ourselves fixing our hair at a glimpse of a reflection in a window. But can we pass this rudimentary test as a collective entity such as an organisation? Of course, the banking royal commission in Australia has shown that we certainly can when we face the mirror test… publicly. You would’ve guessed by now that the ‘mirror’ here is a metaphor for meticulously collected data and carefully drafted insights and the ‘test’ is the very process of the royal commission which held the mirror right up. The success of the royal commission had a lot to do with the data with over 10,000 submissions. In addition, the public hearing ensured a broader awareness of insights and issues revealed by a large amount of data and information.

Self-aware organisations:

Self-awareness is not a new concept. At its foundation, it’s just self-recognition but at its pinnacle, it’s the elixir that eludes humans in their quest to understand the purpose of their existence. We have been battling with this notoriously complex and perplexing idea since Socrates. It has certainly kept me busy over the years.

Self-aware organisations are collectively aware of their existence, values and purpose. In fact, it helps to think of these organisations as single organisms. It is true that each employee plays a role but benefits can only be realised collectively and the collective benefit to the organisation and the community is greater than the sum of all the contributions.

Obviously, data that comprehensively reflects organisational processes is the foundation of self-aware organisations. However, building such awareness of organisational data processes is like building a castle on quicksand. Just imagine how chaotic it would be if the production line of Toyota constantly changed as they produced cars. This is what the financial industry is grappling with, the dynamic nature of the processes mean they become obsolete by the time they are understood and documented. In addition, the lack of platforms to make data discoverable and readily available is hindering the adaption of advanced analytics.

Why is this important now?

Organisations have always strived to be self-aware but they face an uphill battle against ever-increasing business complexity. The large organisations are intrinsically complex due to their sheer size. But, increasingly myopic business strategies have resulted in business processes being unnecessarily complicated and swimming in details.

The senior leaders are expected to make ‘bold’ decisions that achieve customer satisfaction and yet generate above-market returns for shareholders. In a competitive market, this requires deep business insight and foresight. Data and use of data through appropriate analytics will help generate objective insights to support bold decisions. But more importantly, seamless propagation of data, information and insights throughout the organisation’s arterial systems will infuse necessary confidence required to make those bold decisions. No leader is an island, while the leader bears the burden of single point accountability for the decisions it’s a collective effort to get it right.


The positive correlation between self-awareness and behaviour in individuals is quite extensively researched in psychology and philosophy. It is no different for collective entities. The organisation that is collectively aware of itself and how it interacts with the broader community is likely to demonstrate values and behaviours consistent with the community expectations. Bit of self-reflection in the age of data commoditisation will go a long way in building great organisations and societies.

Founder at GradientRisk. Advisor in governance and risks around Data and Artificial Intelligence.

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