Building Toward the Future – The Culture and Collaboration of Data Modernization

Peer Practices
Written by Drew Lazzara

Chris Fitzharris

Senior Director, Data & Analytics

C.H. Robinson

For most people, the word “modern” conjures the new, the contemporary. Modern art breaks with old traditions of form; modern architecture rejects old conventions and employs innovative construction techniques. “Modern” is an ambiguous term, but it always turns the page on the past. 

Data and analytics leaders across industries are undertaking their own modernization efforts. But these leaders don’t always have the luxury of making a clean break with the past, at least not all at once. Nor do they necessarily want to: “We have more data in this industry than anyone else, but we are the leader in our space because of the relationships we have with our customers. We have 115 years of relationships.”

That’s Chris Fitzharris, senior director of data and analytics at C.H. Robinson. To him, modernizing doesn’t cancel the past; it invigorates relationships that have made C.H. Robinson the leader in third-party logistics and global freight. As Fitzharris notes, his team has more than a century of knowledge to draw on, “and all the data to go along with it. But we haven’t ever really used it efficiently. Putting that data to work in tandem with those relationships is a really powerful thing.”

Modernization is a pairing of the past to the present, with an eye toward the future. Fitzharris applies that definition to culture, partnerships, and an approach to change as he modernizes C.H. Robinson’s data strategy.

Strong Cultures Like a Challenge

The core tenets of Fitzharris’ data strategy are clear: data accuracy, availability and accessibility. He’s spent the last 18 months building an architecture to support those outcomes and eliminate the risks from legacy systems impeding those goals. His team has made major strides in that time, and a focus on culture is a big reason why. 

“One thing that was so obvious when I joined the organization is everyone is so passionate about our business,” says Fitzharris. “They really care about what we do, and it’s a very people-oriented culture. I wanted to build on those essential things.” 

Passion is an advantage to any corporate culture, but Fitzharris also wanted to make sure he was challenging people. “I always tell my team,” he says, “we aren’t learning if we aren’t uncomfortable. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, and in fact we want to be uncomfortable.” He’s seen complacency derail growth before. “I had been with organizations that hit a nice run speed but stopped stretching and learning.” 

Fitzharris pushed leaders across the organization to challenge their own assumptions. “Our architecture space is one example,” he explains. “We have sometimes said, ‘We built this tool, here’s how it works; all we need is to take this same tool and push it to the cloud.’ It sounds great, but we need to be honest with ourselves and ask, “Well, is that right?’ And we found that in fact there were some underlying risks to that approach.” 

Fitzharris also believes it’s important to bring in outside voices to help the organization recognize these biases. “It’s helpful to bring in people who are agnostic of vendors and agnostic about us, because they can almost ask the dumb questions: what is this tool, why does it exist? That helps us look at things objectively.” This approach reinvigorates the culture and illuminates new opportunities. 

Fitzharris also wanted to empower new voices and opinions from within the organization. He says, “Early on, I did notice a few folks wanted to help us drive this and voice an opinion, but they were reserved in speaking out. There was a sense that each initiative has a few leaders, and other input wouldn’t be accepted. It wasn’t intentional, but I saw that it created a hesitation to challenge these leaders.” Fitzharris didn’t dwell on the negativity, choosing instead to emphasize the importance of diverse ideas and challenge himself. “I tell people, ‘We don’t want ten of me; that would be terrible.’ We need everyone’s input, especially early on when we’ve got a blank slate for our vision that we’re building.”

Listen, Learn and Show Your Work

Forging a new path is always a challenge, even when there’s a strong culture. Fitzharris has been sensitive to this reality from the moment he took the job. “When you get started, you see that some people can be a bit close-minded to change,” he admits. “That’s why you have to take empathy seriously and walk in other people’s shoes. The worst thing I could do is just start making decisions right away. I have to show people that I understand what they need, what challenges they face.”

Fitzharris understood that listening is the first job of the leader – not just to establish empathy but also as a practical aspect of strategy-development. “Defining the strategy really just means restating what you’ve heard. It’s a process of confirmation,” he says. “You review what you’ve heard with key stakeholders, and you restate it in lots of different ways so that people can help you confirm it’s what they meant and where they really need to go.” 

Being an open listener illuminates the right path for modernization, but it’s also an accelerant for your strategy. “Most of the time, if you’ve listened, you find you’re not too far off, and that gets people excited. They want to be heard and see follow-up on their point of view,” says Fitzharris. It turns resistors of change into influencers of change.

Of course, you have to capitalize on this momentum as it builds. “You’ve done the listening so you can say to people, ‘Here’s where we’re going and how we get there.’ But then you have to immediately show them; give them something we can do today that we couldn’t do a few months ago,” says Fitzharris. It’s another place where the intangible aspects of change management collide with the practical needs of the business. “People can get overwhelmed with the sheer number of problems we need to solve. Showing that progress makes it all feel less ambiguous, less enormous.” It takes away the stress and fear of change.

Fitzharris has seen that you can also be very strategic about the kind of concrete progress you show to the business and feed that success back into your strategy execution. “You should target one of the biggest divisions,” he says, “because you’re not going to move the needle as quickly if you focus on smaller, lower-hanging fruit.”

At C.H. Robinson, Fitzharris and his team have been very focused on the right business cases to start on. “Our North American Surface Transportation division is responsible for the majority of our overall revenue,” he explains. “It was critical to get them interacting with our architectural strategy early on, even if it was just a handful of users.” 

Even as his team worked through the communication and definition work, they put some of the data out into the environment. “We wanted to empower early adopters right away, and it worked. These users are seeing substantially faster speed-to-market; insights and reports are being delivered literally 300% faster than before.”

To have these users say, ‘Each of us is saving an average of 3.5 hours every week,’ that’s a way to show real, incremental value and validate our path right away.”


That kind of PR is priceless, and it fuels his larger vision. “Success means that data engineering and data science are working in conjunction out of our modern architecture,” he says, “but we also need to be retiring legacy systems. Of course that means a reduction in total cost of ownership, but it’s really important that people simply know it’s happening. We need to enable the organization to work exclusively in the new modern architecture while retiring legacy systems.” 

It’s working: “In the last few years, we’ve had some 10,000 minutes of unexpected data latency, and that’s really impacted us. We expect to reduce that by 95%. That’s tangible; users won't be prevented from making fast business decisions.” It also allows him to “retire” some of the outside consultants as the program matures. “We want to show our confidence and trust in our people,” Fitzharris says. “We have to be clear that we are importing that knowledge, not buying it. We want our own people to become the experienced experts.”

Fitzharris’ approach to modernization shows that a methodical, practical path doesn’t have to preclude big, dramatic wins. If it seems simple, that’s the goal. “I like to say data is the new utility,” he says. “Our analytics community has been bringing their pail to the stream of water every time they need it, then hauling it and boiling it before they can even use it. We want to say, ‘Go to your faucet and turn on the water.’ And that’s what we’re doing so the business can win.”


Special thanks to Chris Fitzharris and C.H. Robinson.

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