Obama's campaign won as it grew out of a web culture
A view from Russell Davies

Obama's campaign won as it grew out of a web culture

You're probably fed up with stories about big data and the Obama election victory by now. It's a shame - it's a story I'd loved to have written.

Elections are great for media prognosticators – they are to media and persuasion what wars are to weapons. You get sudden advances, step changes, leaps forward. Elections are laboratories for communication techniques. And the Obama campaign certainly seemed to win the big data war. They understood the value, early on, of measuring everything. They recruited a team of really good data scientists and let them get on with things. And they had the discipline to follow their recommendations – even if counterintuitive.

But you probably don’t need another lecture about the value of data. What might be more interesting would be looking at the organisational underpinning to this – how come the Obama campaign managed to do all of this clever data stuff and Romney’s camp didn’t? That probably has interesting parallels to the world we’re all operating in. And I think it comes down to this – the Obama campaign grew out of a web culture and the Romney campaign out of a procurement one.

The Romney camp did have their own much-ballyhooed data/co-ordination tool planned to get out the vote on election day. They spent a lot of time talking about how good it was going to be. They even called it Orca – since it was designed to "kill" Obama’s "Narwhal" programme. On the day, though, it didn’t seem to work. There are many reports of crashes, a lack of back-up plans, ill-considered documentation and woolly training. Have a quick Google for Romney and Orca – the difference between the pre- and post-election day coverage is fascinating. Now, I’m not a political reporter. I have no idea what actually happened with this thing. But I tell you what it feels like – it feels like a non-technology company outsourcing a big problem in a hurry, making a big noise about it and hoping everything would magically work instantly at launch. It feels like the work of procurement and IT outsourcing.

The Obama campaign, on the other hand, was iterating – like a web business. It had something it knew worked, baked it into the organisational infrastructure and it just kept tweaking it and making it better. In organisational design terms, it’s the difference between "agile" and "waterfall". In reputational terms, it’s the difference between lots of little risks and one enormous one. It’s the difference between a digitally native organisation and a purchaser of IT. And, increasingly, it’s the difference between winning and losing. Sure, data is important and analysing it and acting on it is important. But it’s just the newest technological trick. The bigger question is – have you got an organisational culture that can absorb and use these technologies?