The role of data and analytics in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

By Alistair Maxwell, Head of Strategic Consulting at Decision Inc.

The Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, the list goes on. These are considered important elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that blurs the lines between physical, digital, and biological. Central to this lies data and analytics. So, how can African organisations benefit from this dynamic new environment?

The ability to utilise and analyse data is going to be one of the biggest drivers of business in the future. This enables a better understanding of one’s business and customer requirements. Forming part of this journey is the shift towards a more mobile-centric landscape that sees people expecting to have access to real-time information for informed decision-making. Countries in Africa are in a strong position to benefit from this as they have long been mobile-first marketplaces.

Given how data is a representation of information or performance of a business at a specific moment in time, analysing it can reveal a wealth of insights. These allow for a greater understanding of what is happening in the business and how to improve its performance by taking cognisance of internal and external factors that could impact it.

Any business that can effectively analyse its data will have a massive advantage over its competitors as it will be able to adapt to changing trends and customer demands faster than those that do not have the same insights.

The African perspective

However, there is still much work to be done if the continent is going to effectively utilise its mobile advantage and unlock the additional potential that data holds.

Any business that is going to unlock value from data will first need to access it. This means Africa must have a bigger focus on getting companies and individuals connected – not only in terms of actual internet access but also in terms of extracting data from within their businesses.

Secondly, considering how much data is available to organisations, its quality and relevance needs to be assessed and evaluated. A well-known saying in the data sciences is ‘garbage in results in garbage out’. In other words, any data that is not reliable or accurate, will not provide the business with anything of value.

The third piece of the African puzzle is the need to invest in skills development. Being able to critically analyse data requires a significant focus on education. To unlock this, African countries need to place a greater focus on Maths, Statistics, and Computer Science skills. Even existing employees will need to adapt and, wherever possible, be upskilled to understand how to critically analyse the data and interpret it in a business context.

Overcoming obstacles

In addition to these elements, executive confidence in analytics need to be developed. Several polls show that the greatest challenge to accomplish this is to overcome the trust issue. Most executives agree that data analytics is the way of the future, but they are not confident in the ability of their company to provide accurate or stable data.

Building from this is the question of where data and analytics slot into the bigger strategic picture of the organisation. Is it a core skill and competitive advantage, or is it just the latest buzzword? Businesses need to have an introspective moment and decide if data and data analytics is going to be of value to them. If so, they need to make sure that they are setup to effectively leverage their data and use it as a value add to their core business offering. If not, it will always be seen as a cost to business that does not deliver tangible value.

Value for money will always be an obstacle irrespective the geographic location of a business. Fortunately, many companies have started seeing the value of their data and augmenting it with robust analytics. For example, in South Africa businesses tend to focus on applying it to internal metrics for performance. Retailers, telecoms operators, and financial services providers are also starting to leverage their customer data to provide additional value-added services through the likes of rewards and loyalty programmes as well as through cross-selling and upselling additional services. However, it this is still in its infancy in South Africa.

Even though African organisations are lagging behind those in the United States and Europe in terms of unlocking the value of data and analytics, there are signs that they are moving in the right direction. Who knows, perhaps the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be driven by Africa before too long?