Let’s look at the ideas, insights and strategies for becoming what I have termed a “Data Athlete.” This term has evolved during the many years I have been involved with training and developing exceptionally smart creative analysts. These professionals have a high aptitude and passion to solve big data challenges and possess the dexterity to leap from the intellectually engaging problems to the immediately actionable digital media plays that yield a high ROI. I have found smart analysts love this term—they enthusiastically consider it a badge of honor in making it to the major leagues, where they solve complex marketing problems and optimize campaigns.

I’m sharing all of these learnings with you, as organizations are under ever greater pressures to change in a world that only grows more digital, and in the process is generating more and more data at a blinding pace. Keeping up will require a shift in thinking about businesses, marketing and data—and of course its value, or lack thereof. This will require you and/or your team to become or be more of a Data Athlete to compete in an ever more digital world.

What is a Data Athlete?
Like any athlete, a Data Athlete is competitive. If you’re striving to become or to be more of a Data Athlete, competitiveness is important. Data Athletes compete with the norm—challenging it and outperforming it. They also challenge all assumptions, opinions and even the data they work with. Nothing’s too sacred not to inquire, challenge and test.

Most importantly, Data Athletes build brands by creating solutions based on the evidence and the impact. They seek to affect change based on the impact it will realistically have. They methodically create the future and its outcomes.

Data Athletes have that internal drive to solve and to accomplish. Contrast this with the kitschy T-shirts at the Google Developers Conference that say “data nerd” (disclosure, I have one myself). Data Athletes aren’t interested in tech for tech’s sake, or data for data’s sake.

Data Athletes Don’t Come From Traditional IT Structures
Traditional IT organizations may have staff entirely comfortable with data, having spent entire careers working with databases—building and maintaining infrastructure, building cubes, reports, integrating systems and data sources, and performing the necessary “care and feeding.” Until very recently however, traditional IT and marketing have organizationally been far apart. Bridging that gap may realistically take years in some organizations. The cultural differences between Athletes and Traditional IT aren’t trivial, and they are well-founded. IT has, for decades, been focused on stability, consistency, repeatability—command and control and gradual cautious change.

Data Athletes, on the other hand, will seek to fail and fail fast, test and learn. They require an environment that is not only tolerant of, but embraces the rigorous, ambitious development of multiple hypotheses informed by customer data, rapid testing of those hypotheses, and speedy implementation of those tests—quickly weeding out the ideas that don’t work through a data-driven system of meritocracy and speed. Gumming up that value creation process through a traditional IT process and “queue” stifles the innovation and positive change. Data Athletes often have engineering backgrounds—and have little patience, as they know the cost of slow and lumbering improvement, or lack thereof.

Not surprisingly, Data Athletes don’t come from traditional IT departments, even though many come from software engineering, front-end development, Web analytics and data science. They bring direct marketing logic and understand how brands are built. They enjoy marketing and they are creative—they challenge marketing that “can’t” be measured and improved.

So while the circa 2015 Data Athletes has a deep appreciation for traditional IT and the back office, they are different from traditional IT in critical dimensions. Data Athletes are typically driven to engage, communicate and connect with the end customer at scale, where traditional IT tends to serve corporate management and internal customers.

So, why is it so difficult to cultivate an environment that nourishes and rewards data athletes? Why are some large organizations with abundant operational reporting capabilities slow to address the evolving needs of the more digital, “big data” marketplace?

Let’s answer these questions and discuss how companies can move the ball downfield with the help of data athletes, our future organizational stars, and thinking about your level of fitness as a more “data athletic” organization.

Here are four major considerations in the era of the Data Athlete as a mission-critical team member:

1. Data Athletes Differentiate Quickly Between Reporting and Analytics
More than 90 percent of the analytics programs I’ve looked at, specifically in Web analytics, are little more than reporting programs. Visits, clicks, time on site, sales, etc. All good. All interesting, and all are short on actionability.

2. Actionability Is The Data Athlete’s Priority
Successful businesses have the habit of tracking progress over time. It’s often driven by the CFO’s office. All rhythms drive from those operational metrics: sales, units sold, turnover, etc. They have reports on top of reports. No small effort or expense is required to make those reports and answer questions based on them. These are good for business. They also can shape a culture, a culture of looking at the same things. A culture of reporting.

A “report-driven” culture isn’t all bad. Maintaining that continuity of reporting over time doesn’t, in itself, address new challenges, new consumer behaviors, the impact of Pinterest on your customer relationships, or the threat of a new intermediary who’s putting pressure on you and driving up your acquisition costs. These things affect those top-level, “operational” numbers driven by that reporting. By the time they really hit the reports hard enough, you’re already behind, which sets up “fire drills” and suffocates marketing strategy. The direction is oftentimes driven by opinions. More about that in a moment.

Reporting by definition is reactive, where analytics is really driving the creation of strategies to affect change.

3. HiPPOs Usually Aren’t Athletes.
This isn’t the “hippo” at least some of you were thinking of …

A HiPPO is the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” You probably know from experience how often the HiPPO in the room has an opinion—and challenging it isn’t easy. Or maybe you are the “HiPPO” in the room, at times. HiPPO-dominated organizations don’t need evidence that data provides. They don’t assess the impact of decisions with data, either.

HiPPOs often come from backgrounds where data and evidence are non-existent or primitive. Their ideas are rarely tested or proven, they are qualitative and only shoot straight from the hip.

In comparing Amazon to JCPenney, Fortune described Amazon’s perspective on HiPPOs as “leaders who are so self-assured that they need neither others’ ideas nor data to affirm the correctness of their instinctual beliefs.” HiPPOs sometimes frown on using data to inform and shape a business, labeling anything that seeks to create business model scalability through the intelligent use of customer data as “analysis paralysis.”

HiPPOs miss the fact that Data Athletes don’t just gorge themselves on data, they actually loath excessive unusable data and the overhead that comes with it.

An Athlete does not believe in data for data’s sake. They know what they need, and what they can do with it.

Instead, they see the HiPPO’s experience and knowledge as a source to shape problem definition. They validate the opportunity and problem with the right data. Without strong and accurate problem definition, it’s hard for anyone to effectively choose what data matters and what can be thrown away.

If you have these smart data athletes in your organization, don’t be a HiPPO and trample them—for when you do, you miss opportunity.

If you hire smart Data Athletes, it’s a business risk to ignore them. When you do, you’re under-leveraging and you’re not learning and growing yourself.

How Does This Help a Marketer?
First, think about your own organization, your own challenges, and evaluate if you’re dominated by HiPPOs or if you’re leveraging Athletes in your organization. It’s hard to debate if you need them anymore—you do, and you will. Partner with the Athletes in your organization, and you’ll begin the process of performing at an advanced level.

In future articles, we’ll discuss more specific strategic approaches and tactical executions that can help you execute and become more of a Data Athlete and introduce this unique type of “athleticism” to your organization.