“Just data is never the solution,” says Leah Weiss, senior manager of the WeWork data products team and cofounder of the company’s Data Cult initiative, along with senior data visualization engineer Gabi Steele.
Many people erroneously think that having access to as many metrics as possible—regardless of context—makes them better equipped to make decisions at work, says Weiss. To correct that misconception, and help WeWork employees identify problems faster and use data to build solutions, she and Steele launched Data Cult.
The Data Cult initiative teaches WeWork employees to solve business problems using the raw information from which metrics, stats, and insights can be derived, through sessions on problem-solving methodology and manipulating and analyzing data, among others. What began in March of 2017 as an onboarding program for new data and analytics team members was opened to all employees a year later, so that everyone at the company could more effectively harness available information.
To date, hundreds of employees in four different countries have graduated from the program. “There have been countless times since going through the program that I’ve come upon an issue that would have previously halted my workflow,” says Erin Cherney, a marketing automation engineer in New York, who completed the program in November 2018. “I’ve been able to resolve it based on competencies I developed [in the program].”
In training, Data Cult participants are tasked with pinpointing a problem they’ve encountered in their day-to-day roles—an annoyance, an inefficiency, something they don’t quite understand. “We teach how to identify problems that data can actually solve and how to distill the problems in the business that can benefit from having the right kind of information,” Weiss says.
As an example, imagine that the elevators in a building take too long. Changing the entire elevator system may not be feasible, and asking for all available statistics on company elevator use is not a good use of time and effort. Data Cult teaches how to quantify time lost and then propose practical solutions like morning meetings that start later or are staggered.
“A good problem can be solved in a million different ways,” says Steele, who began her career as an artist and graphic designer before becoming a data visualization specialist and designer at the Washington Post. At WeWork, she designs and builds graphics, dashboards, and tools that tell stories using data. “We’re getting employees to think in a more efficient manner of approaching metrics rather than asking for the data first and then figuring out what comes next.”
To “graduate” from the program, teams of up to four employees must identify a problem and develop a full prototype that could save the company $10 million. Teams present their solutions, via livestream, to the entire company—an audience of up to 11,000 people. It’s not just an exercise—WeWork has implemented several fixes that originated in Data Cult. One example is Furnish, a program dreamed up when participants identified unaccounted-for, unused furniture sitting in warehouses. “We have all this inventory that we’ve purchased and are paying monthly storage fees to keep it unused. We can quantify that problem: the money to pay to store the furniture and the value of the furniture that’s sitting there,” Weiss says. The team built a tool that lets designers prioritize furniture that had been lingering the longest. “It was as simple as sorting the data,” Weiss says.
Another Data Cult team noted that WeWork recruiters had no way to match in-house talent to available roles across departments. Recruiting efforts previously focused on costly external channels, but once the problem was quantified, the team worked to create WeCruit, a tool that helps recruiters fill open positions at WeWork with qualified internal candidates. WeCruit was built out into a model that now allows WeWork recruiters to upload a job description and immediately see a ranked list of potential internal candidates, creating growth opportunities for internal talent and saving money in recruiting fees.
Teaching this type of thinking doesn’t just save the company money, says Weiss. “There’s a big benefit in terms of retention and internal employee development,” she says, noting that some Data Cult graduates have gone on to join her department from non-data roles, including product management and architecture.
In fact, the Data Cult program has become so popular that WeWork managers now nominate employees to become data leaders on their everyday work teams. “We’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm we’ve had at every level,” says Steele. “Executives who want to implement the products, managers who send their top employees through the program, and graduates who take time from their other work each day to give back to the Data Cult community.”
Weiss thinks of Data Cult as an employee-founded startup within a growing company. “We resemble the larger culture of WeWork,” she says. “We’re a small scrappy team, and we do everything in a hands-on way. We want to do work that we’re proud of. If that’s off, nothing will really work.”