Say no to normality: break the rules with joined up analytics

Laurie Miles, Director of Analytics, SAS UK & Ireland, explores how organisations can effectively challenge inefficiencies among people, processes and technologies to democratise analytics

Big data is not a new phenomenon – businesses have been producing vast quantities of data for many years now – but it is only in the last few years that it has become truly accessible. As a result, our research with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) estimates that big data is set to add £322 billion to the UK economy between 2015 and 2020.

Since the potential of analysing data has been realised, it has become an integral part of business functions. Technological advances have meant that businesses across the globe can make more sense of the wealth of data which resides in their systems (in terms of volume, velocity and variety) and leverage that to improve business performance. Use of advanced analytics is crucial if organisations are to take advantage of the latest technological developments we’re seeing as part of the internet of things and artificial intelligence.

Data sharing across departments and the development of simple-to-use visualisation tools means that analytics are now accessible to those beyond the IT department. This process is otherwise known as the ‘democratisation of analytics’, and it’s changing the way businesses in all sorts of industries are run. Our research has shown that more than half of businesses are currently using data analytics to enhance operations, strategy and financial planning, while many plan to start using data analytics to support people management (33%) and demand forecasting (24%) in the future.

The main issue: people

However, there are multiple and common pitfalls in the way analytics is being deployed. At the moment, organisations spend too much time developing analytical models without planning who will use them and how. Analytics is rolled out piecemeal within (and not across) departments, and adopted at different speeds across the business.

It’s inevitable that analytics becomes siloed, stuck in one department, never receiving the buy-in it needs to achieve its full potential for the wider business. There is no silver bullet for deployment that will work for every organisation. However, the aim should be to get the analytical framework up and running quickly. When you’re mired in delays, scepticism tends to set in, resistance grows and the value of real-time insight is lost. 

Technical debt: the biggest obstacle to progress

The speed of deployment depends very much on the existing technology used by the company. This can become frustrating when a patchwork of separate systems is needed to run the analytics. When the processes for gathering, analysing and using data are separate, it can take months before an analytical model is ready to be deployed.

Technical debt – the extra cost and time incurred by not replacing legacy technology quickly – has become a major challenge for UK businesses. Almost nine in 10 organisations complain that technical debt relating to analytics is restricting their ability to iterate, innovate and grow. For 20 per cent, outdated systems and technology are a major restriction on the business.

Fortunately, however, technology is the easiest opponent to conquer. The impact of technical debt can be softened by improving the skills of the workforce. Those who say that ‘technical debt’ is restricting business innovation are taking proactive steps to resolve the issues by training existing staff on analytics practices (52%) and recruiting specialist analytics staff (26%).

Parlez-vous data? A new language for the advocates

Business leaders need to develop a new language to explain the benefits of analytics and get the most out of their data. If employees are simply expected to follow orders and use analytics because it’s mandated then they won’t embrace it, especially if they’ve been trained to cultivate and trust their own insight and instincts. Often it’s difficult to trust the insights of a system that people don’t understand. Confusion can lead to scepticism over the value of analytics, which can slow its vital adoption by its most important users – your workforce.

Conversely, some departments can value their data too highly. Concerns over confidentiality or strict data protection regulations can make many weary of sharing data internally. What should be a joined-up and organisational approach to analytics becomes a series of isolated data islands which don’t communicate with each other. It’s no surprise that only a quarter of companies use the full range of data available to them.

To secure buy-in, business leaders must make it clear to employees how analytics can help them in their role as well as benefit the business. For today’s organisations, analytics has become easier for everyone to use, meaning that disruption and innovation can come from anywhere in the business. Data is knowledge and knowledge is power: it’s important to highlight how easy-to-use visual analytics technologies can get employees involved and excited by the insights and opportunities they can uncover.

When we describe how analytics empowers people to do great things, a data-driven culture starts to germinate. When colleagues understand how analytics can transform their work and its value they will use it daily and encourage others to do the same. This is how analytics spreads throughout a business, and these attitudes are vital for achieving a unified approach.

The objective for business leaders should always be to democratise analytics within their company. However, reforming irrelevant processes and technologies to set the foundation for a pro-data environment is crucial to ensuring a successful deployment. As is having a planned life-cycle approach, from inception to deployment and evaluation.

When the use of analytics is democratised across a company, everyone enjoys the benefits. There will be obstacles to achieving analytical equality, such as outdated technology, ingrained office cultures and inefficient processes. In order to avoid these bumps in the road, businesses leaders have to have the courage to break the rules and challenge the established processes and practices which people have become too comfortable with. Leaders need to say no to “we’ve always done it this way”.

The bottom line for business leaders is this: your deployment will succeed via collaboration. Make sure you bring the organisation along with you.

About the Author

Laurie Miles is a Global Director of Cloud Analytics and brings over 25 years of real-world analytics experience to the role. After joining SAS in 1996, Laurie was a consultant delivering analysis focussed projects to organisations from a variety of industry sectors including financial services, telecommunications, retail and utilities. He became SAS UK’s Head of Retail Banking Technology in 2000. Laurie was later appointed Head of Analytics for SAS UK & Ireland in 2008, working with some of the UK’s largest organisations providing strategic advice and forming industry best practice. In this role Laurie also pioneered the development of the SAS Analytics-as-a-Service solution, “SAS Results”. In January 2015 was appointed to lead this globally as part of the SAS Cloud Analytics proposition. Laurie holds a BSc in Econometrics, an MSc in Game Theory and a PhD in Number Theory.