Comprehensive approach to a data-driven culture at Microsoft illustrated in MIT CISR study

Nov 16, 2017   |  

When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft in 2014, one of the first things he did was urge employees to do a better job of using data to make decisions.

This provocative challenge is the subject of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Information Systems Research (MIT CISR) case study by Principal Research Scientist Barbara H. Wixom, who studies how big companies use data to drive business value. Using data to guide decisions is common now at Microsoft, but it was it mostly used in isolated pockets in 2014.

The case study finds that Nadella’s focus on cultivating a data-driven culture quickly resulted in the company driving positive business outcomes. The report notes that 61 percent of Microsoft employees use Microsoft Power BI, the company’s data analytics platform. Typical adoption rates at companies like Microsoft are closer to 30 percent.

The report identifies an organizational mindset and commitment to be data driven, and it calls out a shift in thinking that included providing incentives for employees to use data to build on each other’s work. Also contributing, the report finds that both leaders and employees are using data analytics to redefine how they measured success and to find new business models.

Getting analytical on data culture

Microsoft leaders might not have realized it at the time, but the way they implemented Nadella’s vision for becoming data driven was comprehensive, and something other companies can emulate, according to the study. The report identifies five techniques that Core Services Engineering (formerly Microsoft IT) used to get company employees to embrace a data analytics culture. The report walks through how Microsoft uses all five to deliver on Nadella’s vision.

MIT CISR graphic on five ways Microsoft encouraged its employees to embrace a data culture: Embedded, multidisciplinary, advisory, services, and networked.
Microsoft Core Services Engineering (formerly Microsoft IT) used five key techniques to spur broad adoption of a data culture by its employee base, according to the MIT CISR study. Copyright MIT.

Multidisciplinary: The case study notes how Microsoft is using data to become more efficient, and is doing so across teams and functions. Having one agreed-upon set of data that’s accessible to all allows the company to be much better at collaborating, the report says. It points to how Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities (which manages buildings) worked with Microsoft Human Resources and Core Services Engineering to use employee data (when they enter and exit buildings) to better manage heating and cooling, making employees more comfortable while saving millions of dollars.

Don’t go with your gut: The report describes how adopting a data-driven culture is helping Microsoft move from using the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HIPPO) to make decisions, to making decisions based on data and analysis.

Getting data to the people: Right from the beginning, Microsoft’s data analytics community reached out to employees to draw them into the company’s budding data culture. The company created networking events where data-minded people and non-data-minded people got together to talk shop—the goal was to make using data every day accessible, non-threatening, even enticing. And a Yammer group was created to take those conversations online and to make them social.

Creating an A-Team: The report calls out how Microsoft created a small but mighty team that advised leaders on how to promote adopting a data culture within their business units and helped leaders build data dashboards to drive desired outcomes. Once the team got a leader moving, they moved to other leaders, armed with additional best practices to share.

Sharing best practices: The report details how everyone involved in the data culture shift shared best practices in real time. It calls out how leaders encouraged use of marketing techniques to drive the adoption of common best practices across Microsoft.

To learn more, read Wixom’s “Microsoft Turns to Data to Drive Business Success” case study and her “Data-Driven Transformation at Microsoft” research briefing. To download these files, you must register on the MIT CISR website.

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