Harnessing creativity in a data-driven workplace

In the past there were those people, teams, functions and companies that were dependent on creativity and those that were based on knowledge.  The age old tussle between art and science.  In the modern world, art and science must co-exist. By bringing the two together, businesses can offer a competitive advantage.

office discussion with sticky notes

2020 LinkedIn data highlights how today’s industry leaders value soft skills over hard, and in line with that view creativity as THE most sought-after skill in business. However, as organisations become more tuned-in to the power of technology in operations and information, creativity is increasingly influenced and informed by data and vice versa, hence analytical reasoning was cited as the third most desirable technical skill.

Data can plot a course towards valuable audiences which creativity can then build the optimum vessel to reach, but crucially it can also ensure that what’s created has meaning. Data helps us justify the why of a creative concept based on what we know not what we think, meaning less bright, bold directions may be at the mercy of risk aversion. What’s more, it allows us to review, refine and optimise ongoing, enhancing efficiency, effectiveness and, ultimately, ROI.

McKinsey reported that businesses which have successfully integrated creativity and analytics have grown up to twice as fast as those that haven’t, so the question is not do we favour one over the other in our strategies and executions, but rather how do we bring the two together for the best outcomes? We spoke to Prof. Richard O. Sinnott from the University of Melbourne’s School of Computing and Information Systems to learn more about how organisations can apply a connected and decidedly human lens to the work they do when mixing knowledge, creativity and technology.

Tell tales with data as your foreword

“In isolation, data isn’t explicitly powerful, but the application of creative thinking to that information is what makes it so, by allowing us to create and communicate unique stories and solutions that are relevant, insightful, inspiring and above all valuable.

For this reason, businesses and business people need to be the best interpreters and communicators of the knowledge that their data holds. Learning and training can help even the more technical of individuals develop skills geared to unlocking the potential of ideas, extending them into new spaces and validating their worth. In this environment data is not an endgame but a starting point to share compelling and considered narratives which can culminate in success.”

Encourage the use of soft skills to unlock hard data

“I’ve supervised literally hundreds of Masters dissertations that have approached creativity and data. This starts with which data sets to draw upon and how to decipher their interconnections with an open mind. In doing so, students have uncovered a rich array of unexpected conclusions that then stimulate further creative thought around how insights are used to inform everything from marketing messages and product strategy to systems development and UX design.

As an example, creative exploration of social media data via analytics consistently gives rise to a swathe of fresh pathways and thought-starters stemming from the ability to unlock insights into the public psyche and their behaviours that would otherwise be impossible. Such data can also offer focus when identifying potential challenges and opportunities through scenario building and role-playing, be that in the context of clients and customers or competitive threats.”

Collaborate (and compete) to create

“Integrating the different thought-processes of different people when exploring information can help illuminate trends that might otherwise be missed independently. I’ve seen some incredibly imaginative ideation come from the collaborative efforts of analysts, engineers and designers, especially where scrutiny and cross-pollination of ideas is openly encouraged. My team have developed crowd-sourced reasoning platforms to turbocharge the ability of experts to collaborate and provide inputs without technological constraints. A recent example of this is a platform enabling Go8 universities to explore COVID-19 lockdown easing options on behalf of the Australian Government.

Assembling multi-disciplinary teams is an obvious way to harness this collaboration, but there are other factors that can have a favourable impact, one being competition. In a world where technology has leveled the playing field through access to relatively powerful tools, being consistently creative is essential to competitive success, whether that’s through the use of state-of-the-art Cloud computing, coding or graphics and user interfaces. Encouraging such explorations by world class engineers creates a culture of positive peer pressure to excel and evolve, a model which drives the most successful tech companies.”

Curate data-based inputs to create needs-based outputs

“Getting the most from data begins with ensuring it is shaped into a form whereby creativity can be unleashed – the heterogeneity of data is a major challenge for many industries and organisations. Being clear on objectives is key to identifying which insights are being sought and what value they will bring, which of course influences the information funnelled through data pipelines and processes.

Creativity can also have an impact on the gathering and analysis of data itself. Curation of the ‘right’ data to capture (avoiding data for data’s sake) and selection of the ‘best’ data to work with in addressing a problem, suspicion or question, are both inherently creative pursuits and crucial to needs-based outputs enabled by data, not skewed by it. Data curation is as concerned with what to reject as what to retain, and how the remaining information will interact in support of quality decision making.”

Learn, develop, deploy and refine…fast

“My team (www.eresearch.unimelb.edu.au) develop software solutions for many different projects across a myriad of research domains. Sometimes the researchers we work with have a clear vision, other times they have a vague idea or don’t really understand what the technology could do for them.

A lot of our work is therefore ideating and developing rapid prototypes to help distil their requirements. We follow an agile methodology where our engineers create a range of ways to interact with and visualise data, placing their own creative capabilities at the forefront of the process as we home in on a format and functionality that best suits our client’s needs. We then test, tweak and redevelop in conjunction with the client or end users to achieve their vision. This nearly always requires being creative in our layering of sometimes divergent considerations, requirements and perspectives to produce robust software systems in minimal time.”

The creative impulse, inputs and process has the opportunity to be supported more successfully than ever before by new information and technologies, as does the capture and sharing of its outputs. To help build skills in harnessing modern creativity, knowledge and communications for real results, the University of Melbourne has developed a pair of industry-aligned microcredentials which offer professionals the insight and understanding they need in a bite-sized format.

Click the courses to learn more about how Generating Creativity and Digital Storytelling can benefit you or your business.

With special thanks to:

  • Prof. Richard O. Sinnott, Professor of Applied Computing Systems, School of Computing and Information Systems, University of Melbourne