How to leverage the power of business intelligence to build resilience and agility – Interview with Charlene Smith

Business has not been easy for the past few years as South Africa has battled to emerge from a recessionary environment amidst calls for reform and ratings agency downgrades. As if that were not enough, an incredibly disruptive pandemic has forced enterprises to rethink every aspect of their business, from strategy to operations. Then, in July during the peak of the Covid-19 third wave, looting and violence brought KwaZulu-Natal to a standstill, while pockets of Gauteng were also brought to their knees. It’s estimated that week cost 0.7% of national GDP.

Despite this, in all our interactions with South African companies, the overriding orientation is to rebuild smartly and redouble efforts to forge resilience and competitiveness.

It is paramount that as we, in the industry, work with our partners, we do so with the following focus: help them rebuild smartly and provide options for them to consider how they can do things differently. This is not change for change’s sake, but change to build the agility and resilience required to weather more surprises or shocks the future may hold.

We need to sit with businesses, as partners and advisers, and ask: “How can we help you do things better? Where and how is analytics going to support this? How do you use the very best in business intelligence to better understand yourselves and your customers?”

Especially when considering the damage caused by the violence and looting, the goal needs to be a resilient business that in the face of immense disruption, can flip a switch and recover processes without worrying about hardware and software being down. A business needs to recover, and recover fast, and a natural evolution from this thinking is designing a cloud strategy that constantly works towards cutting costs, such as bringing down software costs and cutting back on IT resources all the while ensuring flexibility and scalability for users to access systems and work from anywhere at any time.

How many times have we had to wait for President Cyril Ramaphosa to tell us at 8.30pm on a Sunday night that the country is changing lockdown levels? The goal should be to continue working, at almost no notice, with no loss in business and without long setup times. In the face of massive disruption, there should be no need to activate long, convoluted disaster recovery processes that were in place when we still depended on physical hardware. Naturally, backup and recovery is crucial to a cloud strategy, but these are designed as a service to provide near real-time efficacy.

There was certainly more cloud hesitancy in the years leading up to the pandemic, but the disruption has forced a rethink and put South Africa on a similar cloud path as developed markets. Data sovereignty regulations and other infrastructure challenges hamper the transition to the cloud in many other African countries, but by and large, South African businesses are cloud ready, meaning we are empowered to unlock the best that business intelligence tools have to offer.

Choosing the right BI solution

A partner needs to align with a business from the outset, and understand what their business and data policies are, and together they need to go through the options of keeping their data on-premise for a client-managed solution, or to migrate to a cloud-based software-as-a-solution option. It is paramount to make these options clear, as well as the compelling case for each and how they are best aligned with, and support, the existing business policies.

In almost two decades working in this industry, I have never encountered two customers that are exactly the same. Each business is a unique organism which means it requires a unique approach when choosing, and a bespoke design when implementing a BI tool.

The first, and most important, question is: What are you trying to achieve? In other words, are you trying to derive insights from data to make better decisions, or are you attempting to do away with laborious manual reporting processes, are you seeking speed and efficiency, or is it a bit of all of these, and if so, which is priority number one? Every business will have different data and different analytical needs, but by carefully analysing the organisation’s people, processes and data, a partner and the business can develop the right solution together.

It is not surprising when looking at the business environment that most businesses are aiming to lower their costs, which means they must be empowered to appreciate the full benefit derived from the total ownership cost of one solution versus others in the industry. For instance, a Qlik BI solution provides an end-to-end service, from all the back-end work with data preparation, through to visualisation and associative and cognitive processing, which makes comparing apples with apples paramount.

We believe strongly that the best way to achieve business goals is to empower BI tool users. Traditionally, IT has driven BI. This needs to be turned around which means that when a solution is in place, there needs to be a solid structure that empowers users. This is where real value lies for the organisation.

Optimising BI

Once a business has settled on a BI tool, there are a few things it can do to drive value. These include:

  • Unlock ROI – Align the BI tool with business requirements, which demands a bespoke solution for every business.
  • Mobility – Businesses should enable users to capitalise on analytics wherever they are. This requires strong governance – which is built into the best tools – and processes, supported by connectivity and data security.
  • Automation – Allow the tool to move you away from manual processes that provide room for human error and capitalise on the efficiencies of automation.
  • Think Big – There must be a big strategy in place that plots the business’s journey over the short, medium and long term.
  • Be Proactive – When certain conditions are met or anomalies surface, an alert can help the business proactively manage stock levels or distribution, among much more, in real time, rather than having to wait for reactive reporting.
  • Data Quality – You get out what you put in, and so the quality of data is paramount. Ensure your BI tool constantly monitors data quality.

When choosing a BI tool, a business should consider all the moving parts required to make it function optimally. Qlik, for example, is exemplary at ensuring a robust data model through its ETL (extraction, transform, load) processes. Coupled with very strong governance built into its design, businesses can ensure that the correct users have access to the correct data and insights.

Ultimately, whichever route a business takes, it would do well to partner with a consultantancy that prioritises data literacy within its organisation. Once users understand the data sets being used, obviously appropriate to their role in the business, understand the process the BI tool uses to deliver its reports and insights, and understand how to navigate the tool itself, the value is realised.

Empowered users are fundamental to leveraging the power of business intelligence and analytics, and this forges the resilience and agility so desperately needed in our new normal.

For original article in South Africa Today.

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