The wisdom of the wonk

The wisdom of the wonk

Might Martin O’Malley beat Hillary Clinton in the primary?

Not according to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who dismissed the declared candidate’s primary chances. Calling the former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor a “wonk,” Milbank’s March 11 column applauded O’Malley’s many real accomplishments but declared him unable to excite the Democratic base.

Milbank quotes O’Malley as saying, “We brought crime down by 43 percent. We reduced the number of children poisoned by lead in our city by 71 percent. We cut in half the number of children placed in foster care. We reduced infant mortality by more than 17 percent. We drove down avoidable hospital re-admissions by more than 10 percent in just the first year of trying.”

You get the picture. Results. Not miles traveled around the globe, or evidence of caring about women since forever. Neither Tea Party rallying cries, nor being unwilling to admit our President loves America. Only no-drama stellar results created by using data to prioritize issues, identify root causes, and enable leaders to focus action and measure progress.

If this is what a wonkish political leader can accomplish, bring them on! Martin excites me. So do all the leaders who realize that an era of data-driven decision-making is here. The black box has been cracked open. Massive data is available. Storage and computing capabilities are cheap. And advanced analytics are affordable, turning outdated mental maps into fresh, actionable insights and gut-feel risky decisions into smart decisons.

I’m seeing more and more wonks in the business world, too, some providing examples at the recent WTN Fusion 2015 conference. These companies are leveraging digital technology and data to transform their organizations.

CDW uses data to identify where to spend marketing dollars and how to personalize marketing messages to drive demand for its products.

SubZero-Wolfe has a brilliant brand, but its three-step distribution channel (showrooms, distributors and retail outlets) creates complexity, especially when the channels act independently. Going forward, the brand will use showrooms to turn the consumer’s vision of her kitchen into purchase intent for SubZero and Wolfe appliances. Distributors and retailers will learn of this intention through digital marketing processes and then work to seal the deal.

Joy Global, Inc. uses data and algorithms to run instrumented and interconnected mining machines from a comfortable and safe room thousands of miles from the mine site, eliminating downtime for shift turnovers.

Solstice Mobile helps its clients differentiate their customer experience by designing mobile platforms that create customer delight at every touch point. Solstice Founder and CEO, J Schwan, argues we need to turn systems of record that merely collect data (for financial reporting and operations) into systems of digital engagement that build customer loyalty.

John Byrnes, Executive Chairman of the Board and President of Mason Wells, said it best. To paraphrase him, “It’s time we put the Chief Financial Officer back in the bottle and elevate the Chief Information Officer to the C-Suite, as there is no business advancement without information technology today.”

The same is true nationally. Many of our compelling issues demand data, analysis and digitally enabled solutions. Identifying children at risk for maltreatment and allocating more resources to prevention strategies. Personalizing education to accelerate K-12 learning. Treating chronic diseases earlier to reduce costs and improve health. Personalizing medicine to get higher returns on drug spending. Advancing cyber-security solutions. Reducing the cost of higher education. Making information about political contributions transparent and widely available to move our nation back towards real democracy versus political leadership for hire. I could go on forever listing opportunities in the public commons for digital transformation.

Accenture’s Mark McDonald was very clear that there is only one right way to capitalize on digital technology. The wrong way is to add digital as jewelry (“eye candy” in his words) onto an existing business. The right way is to “apply technology to increase connectivity and functionality in order to increase avenues of value.” Achieving success with digital transformation requires, according to McDonald, for leaders to choose — to say yes to some things and no to others. That’s as good a definition of strategy as I have heard.

We need insightful leaders who can ask the right questions and encourage others to use data to find answers for our companies and our government. Leaders with wonk-like instincts can help us cut through the Gordian knots that keep us at an impasse as problems continue to worsen — be they in the public space or between different organizational functions or divisions. These kinds of leaders are not stuck in old paradigms. They encourage us to be open-minded thinkers, finding innovative solutions to the real problems.

The future belongs to wonk-like leaders and organizations. Nerdy, objective and creative is the description of the desirable company man/woman. How will you find them or groom them?

© Plantes Company, 2015

More articles by Kay Plantes

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. She resides in San Diego, California but still considers Madison home. She is the author of Beyond Price.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.