Accessing Data Value for your Organization by Mimicking Natural Systems

Since my early days working in operations for sustainability organizations, I had an affinity and interest in starting with root causes and workflow integration to solve problems and achieve efficiencies.

It seemed natural and necessary to explore the deeper roots or source of challenges so that the solution could be fit for purpose and deliver lasting value. It was challenging for me to think about a problem without thinking about the system(s) that contributed to it, including the web of people, resources, and levers of support.

This holistic and systems thinking could sometimes challenge my colleagues. It could come across as too aspirational, or impractical, for solving the particular issue in front of us.

Yet roots and integration are defining characteristics of natural systems, which we seek to restore and sustain in our work towards sustainability. These dimensions capture the very essence of sustainability.

Look to all of nature’s irreplaceable engineering and impeccable efficiency: the human body, our delicate climate balance, the small triggers that impact biodiversity, and the state of our planet today resulting from behaviors and habits of billions of individual humans.

All of these natural systems have two things in common that work in effortless harmony: dependency and feedback. These two concepts are also at the root of data value creation for organizations.

How are the concepts of dependency and feedback related to data?

If data is an organization’s most valuable asset (after its hardworking humans), we have to actively manage it to create value with it. We must understand it, and monitor its quantity, quality, storage, and movement. This is much like how warehouses function for managing physical inventories and what living beings do with available natural resources.

To manage data assets effectively to achieve specific objectives, we also have to understand the dependencies between data assets, and thus, among data-related activities. In 2019, these activities are still primarily coordinated by people (e.g. implementing data platforms, or coordinating data initiatives).

Once you understand the dependencies between data and people within an organization (a living system), you can unlock tremendous value from data. This is because understanding these connections gives you a lot of information about the ‘data trail’. Knowing how your data flows can help organizations identify where to invest in better data quality, and which data to use to drive better decision-making and build value from data-sharing efforts.

Understanding data-related activities and dependencies between data and people is the basis for data governance, which is less about governing data and more about governing people’s interactions with data.

So, why don’t we hear much about data governance, but see much more investment in, and discussion of, technology solutions and other more ‘practical’ and short-term wins?

In addition to relatively little deep exploration of data processes, and a general disconnect in our views of organizations as living systems, organizations do not usually rely on a holistic system of internal feedback.

Feedback in a living system, like an organization, is essential for its proper functioning and evolution. Feedback loops allow organizations to learn from their activities and initiatives using their most valuable resources: people (data stewards) and data and information. Both connect in daily operations and are essential to building good outcomes and impacts.

In this sense, feedback is the missing link that connects the organization’s efforts to results: to being adaptive, efficient, and effective.

The positive news is that the sustainability movement has been working for many years on describing and operationalizing the root causes and enablers of change to create management systems that enable feedback and identification of dependencies.

Many organizations have developed a theory of change, which sets the foundation and course for understanding and pursuing desired impacts, and related outcomes, objectives, and indicators of success.

We are already translating our understanding of root structures and holistic thinking into our organizational strategies and programs. This best practice is outlined in detail in ISEAL Alliance’s Impacts Code of Good Practice for sustainability standards organizations.

But is this enough to achieve sustainability?

The missing link between an effective theory of change and effectiveness lies in deeper exploration of how impacts indicators are linked to the daily practice of organizations.

How are the results of monitoring and evaluation practice represented in data and information?

This is where data governance can fuel increased value for organizations, connecting their programs, activities, and people with desired outcomes in more precise ways using data and information.

An example from sustainability standards is certification audit results and quality management practices, which are part of the broader organizational system to deliver evidence of impacts on the ground.

How can sustainability organizations do more to mimick natural systems, deepen their understanding of root causes, dependencies, and feedback using their most valuable assets?

Following the data trail through data governance practice makes it possible to use data to drive impacts. In an age of integration and search for innovative ways to address critical sustainability challenges, there is much we can learn from nature in how we manage data within our living organizations (and empower our valuable human assets in the process).

Stay tuned for more examples from sustainability efforts about how data and information can power the effectiveness of monitoring and evaluation programs.

Inspiration: Feedback and natural systems

  1. Peter Wohlleben’s book on The Hidden Life of Trees describes the cooperative, distributive, and interconnected nature of trees. Do these dynamics sound familiar within your organizational context?

When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.

Source: Preserving the Wilderness

Regenerative Leadership: The DNA of life-affirming 21st century organizations

2. Laura Storm is a sustainability leader who recently co-authored a book with Giles Hutchins called Regenerative leadership: The DNA of like-affirming 21st century organizations.

Written by leadership and sustainability experts, the book provides an exciting and comprehensive framework for building regenerative life-affirming businesses. It offers a multitude of business cases, fascinating examples from nature’s living systems, insights from the front-line pioneers and tools and techniques for leaders to succeed and thrive in the 21st century. Read more from Giles Hutchins about addressing the root causes of sustainability challenges.

Quote from R. Buckminster Fuller

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