By Jane Thomson – Managing Director, South Africa Qlik Master Reseller

Technology has enhanced and transformed the capabilities of visual analytics and business intelligence across sector and industry.

What is business intelligence?

Forrester, one of the most influential research and advisory firms in the world, describes business intelligence (BI) as a set of methodologies, processes and technologies that leverage information to help businesses make faster and more accurate decisions. The firm also predicts the market to be one that is set to grow at an 11.5% compound annual growth rate from 2016–2021. Gartner, another leading research firm, has predicted that BI is set to become a priority for enterprises as platforms and solutions become increasingly cost-effective, scalable and capable. The research giants agree that BI and analytics are transformative tools.

Business intelligence and visual analytics have undergone significant transformation over the past few years. This has been driven as much by rapid advancements in technology as by the evolving need of business to dive into the rivers of big data generated by customer and device, and glean insights that drive innovation and growth. Data is no longer trapped on a static slide and dragged through endless interpretations to a tenuous end result – today it is fluid and dynamic, shared live and interpreted on demand. And BI has undercut the barrier to entry as anyone can use the technology to harness its potential and therefore understand its results.

Who benefits?

Every sector across the South African economy is set to benefit from business intelligence and the windows it opens into the mind of the customer, the market and the organisation. BI and visualisation provide a business with the insight it needs to ask the right questions about the challenges it faces and to understand the answers in such a way as to allow for improved corporate decision-making.

Businesses can use BI to take actions that will result in measurable benefit to the company over both the long and the short term. This allows for the company to entrench its abilities within its niche sectors, and to potentially explore new ones on the basis of the insights gleaned. At South Africa Qlik Master Reseller, we have seen numerous sectors benefit from our technology. The primary sectors we have worked with include financial services, public sector, telecommunications organisations, manufacturing, services and distribution, healthcare, education, and tourism and hospitality.

The ability of BI to capture data and interpret it on demand isn’t limited to a specific sector. The technology has become cheaper and easier to use and this has made it more accessible to organisations of all shapes, sizes and industries. Startups and small to medium enterprises (SME) can take hold of a BI solution and use it to shape their future.

How to make BI work for you

Nothing should hinder a company from implementing a BI solution – however, its success depends on strategy and quality of integration. Companies across the board need to consider the factors that will ensure their BI solution is effectively deployed, and done so for the right reasons. Often companies believe that just by purchasing the software they have invested in business intelligence. Unfortunately this is just not true.

The reality is that while technology has opened the doors to business intelligence and development in South Africa, there are still steps that must be taken to ensure it is done properly. Unfortunately too many businesses are still under the impression that they need only to tick a box and sign on a line to open up this all-encompassing solution.

The first step is to have a strategy and a road map, to know exactly what the goals are and what BI and data visualisation are supposed to bring to the table. Different businesses have different challenges and it is important to recognise this before investing in any technical solution. Know the business, understand the challenges and have a clear picture of how data and information insights can provide value. It’s also important to know precisely what BI is, how it is defined and the tangible results it can deliver.

Technology is just a tool. A powerful and ubiquitous one, for sure, but without strategic direction it can become nothing more than a wasted investment that stagnates and delivers little value. Any business – start-up, scale-up, enterprise, SME – can benefit from what BI has to offer with a little foresight, planning and understanding.

The smaller business and the start-up can benefit from this technology by using apps that allow them to measure those aspects that are most crucial to them. They can structure these apps to do projections and analysis based on parameters that they have defined. BI analytics and visualisations support entrepreneurs by closely managing and predicting cash flows that are taking place, and that are going to take place. This allows them to take corrective actions before they discover that they’ve run out of money.

Considering that running out of cash is very different to not making a profit, and given that the economy is playing hardball right now, this level of insight is vital to businesses across the board, from the start-up to the listed company – the apps and implementations can be tweaked to suit different requirements and challenges.

What are the costs involved?

A robust BI and analytics tool can be acquired and implemented for as little as R200 000. This does depend, of course, on what needs to be done, but the price point has lowered the barrier to entry significantly.

There are three components to the installation – hardware, software, and the consulting assistance and training required to get the business started, as well as provide the support necessary to achieve the required benefits. Costs vary depending on how many users will be on the system, how much data will be accessed and interpreted, how many apps are to be built for the business, and whether or not there is an internal team that will be responsible for the system. The latter allows for a company to become rapidly self-sufficient.

Data job creation

Business intelligence and visual analytics have created an entirely new category of employee. If the business opts to use consultants to analyse and assess their BI integrations, then it adds to the cost of the overall solution. However, if they choose to use one of their own employees, or build a team, then they would be creating new roles and opportunities that will have a significant impact on the job market.

In 2012, Gartner predicted that big data would create more than 4.4 million IT jobs globally by 2015. At the end of 2016, the research giant found that the demand for big data analytics has led to businesses seeking out staff that have the specialised skills needed to really grab hold of the numbers and make them mean something. Data scientists, data modellers, data analysts, data discovery analysts, developers and engineers are on the most wanted list, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.

Skills development is key, here, we need people who understand BI and visual analytics, who are driven to understand it and use it effectively, and we would need them yesterday.

Fortunately, most tertiary institutions and training academies have made provision for the training of data analysts and data scientists. In fact, there is a multitude of relevant courses that include: Data Analysis, Business Analysis and Business Process Development, Data Management, Data Design, ETL and Integration, Data Governance, Data Strategy and Predictive Analytics. That’s not even touching the other skill sets such as what-if scenario analysis, data mining and data modelling.

Data modelling is one of the fastest growing career areas around, and that includes metadata modelling. Another popular area of study is BI Architecture, and courses for developers that span portal development, app development, ETL development and reporting development, among others. In the BI operations environment, there are courses for BI administrators and operations management”.

When it comes to data, there is plenty of space for the development of these specialised skills, and assisting companies and practitioners in learning how to understand and interpret the technology. That is aside from the need to train internal staff to ensure that they use it effectively.

Once the technology has been implemented in a company, the users can easily and quickly be trained in how to use it. Such training takes no longer than a few days – depending on the technology, of course – and staff will be introduced to the concepts of the chosen technology and how it functions. They are then taught how to use the apps, how to print and interpret the reports or outcomes from the apps, and the more advanced staff can also be trained to set-up and action their own new reports and apps.

BI in the developing world

Typically, developing countries and emerging economies have scarcer resources, fewer skills, constrained working capital and tougher operating conditions than the developed world. In addition, the rate of change and progress is high and fast. All of these factors are mitigated by having effective information about the business quickly and in a format that is easy to consume. BI puts speed on the reaction process and gives the business a much-needed boost.

South African organisations are paying more attention to these tools and technologies and for the past two years, research firms such as Gartner have listed Business Intelligence as the leading priority for businesses.

In addition, there are numerous trends helping the spread and ease of use of BI and analytics. Four of the most important ones are:
• embedded analytics in other enterprise applications
• the availability of governed data and easy access to all irrespective of where it comes from or how it is stored
• self-service analytics which doesn’t need IT to create or change apps and reports
• the changing role of IT from the custodian of the tools to the strategic custodian of data availability

The technologies and capabilities tend to be similar from region to region and country to country. Challenges such as communications availability and bandwidth may influence how Business Intelligence is implemented or its uptake, of course, as will different layers of legislation. Some regions may have varying legislative controls around the portability of data and the usage of cloud infrastructure.

Riding the tail of the dragon

For the organisation that wants to truly catch onto the tail of the BI and analytics dragon, there is no time like the present. There are some impressive solutions and technologies available today, and they are easily adapted and curated to fit all types of business size, budget and demand. We know that data is still queen, the skills needed to interpret it are still hot, and the technologies that tap into it are evolving at a speed few could ever have anticipated.

There are some really important BI analytical and virtual technologies that are key for executives to be aware of. Data discovery capabilities and the automation of workflow and events in the analytics lifecycle are important, as is the inclusion of real-time events and data streaming. It’s worth adding agility and analytical insights, better accessibility and ease of using toolsets to the suite of business tools. And framing all this are the benefits and brilliance of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

BI and analytics are making an impressive mark on the business and the economy. If implemented intelligently, with a clear strategy and focus, these technologies cannot only spur success, but play a vital role in skills development, education and corporate growth.