Data is becoming an integral driver of the economy and our overall daily lives. In tech circles, it is regarded as the ‘modern oil’ that when well processed, fuels corporates growth in a fast-changing digital economic environment.

A new report on the state of data and analytics in Middle East and Africa (MEA) in 2020, explores how data leaders design business objectives, the changing role of the chief data analytics officer (CDAO) and hurdles holding back corporates.

The report, An Exclusive Snapshot of the Opportunities and Challenges Facing Data and Analytics Leaders Today, reveals that having someone who is responsible for maximising the value of a company’s data asset is essential for businesses operating in the digital age. It indicates that more than 70 C-Suite data leaders have been hired in the MEA region since 2012.

“Going back five years ago, data, being data-driven and especially analytics were kind of a ‘nice to have’ for companies,” says Louise de Beer, Head of BI and Data Science at South African analytics-driven estate agent Leadhome.

“If you look at reports from two years ago, innovators started playing with data as a differentiator. I think where we are now is that data is becoming a hygiene factor. If you don’t have it, what are you doing with your business?”

The number of executives working in senior data roles is a simple litmus test for assessing a region’s digital maturity. South Africa is a regional trailblazer in this respect, with the UAE in a distant second place.

The report suggests that a consensus is starting to form about where the chief data officer (CDO) sits in relation to the wider organisation. Gone are the days of the CDO reporting into the chief information officer (CIO). Instead, 60 percent of the CDAOs who responded to the survey answered to their company’s chief operations officer (COO), 20 percent report to the chief risk officer (CRO) and another 20 percent answer directly to the CEO.

Mark Nasila, Chief Analytics Officer at FNB South Africa says data leaders need a mandate that spans the whole business in order to effectively drive organisational change.

“The business needs or use cases are very unique to each business unit. What I’ve done is to follow what is called a ‘shared services’ operating model. The strategy is centrally led, but it’s executed in a decentralised way, at a business unit level,” he told Digital Business.

The role of a CDAO will naturally evolve with a company’s data maturity. A company’s first CDAO will initially be concerned with developing a data strategy and laying the foundations for data success.

But with this groundwork complete, their focus will shift towards enhancing the ways their organisations can extract value from its data asset. The research shows that this evolution is well underway in organisations across MEA. A whole 46 percent of data leaders say their companies are in this transitionary phase, with 42.5 percent reporting that their data teams are focused primarily on offensive initiatives.

Hartnell Ndungi, CDO at Absa Bank Kenya (formerly Barclays) explains that when people start visualising their data better, they start asking questions like, ‘What will happen in the future?’

“In South Africa and East Africa, what I’m seeing is that 90 percent of CDOs are at level one. They are focusing mostly on data management, data protection and data privacy,” Mr Ndungi reveals.

“I Am also seeing a few CDO 2.0s, who are also able to talk about solutioning and coming up with dashboards and analysis to ensure that you’re able to visualise and present data better, and very few CDO 3.0s,” he adds.

The vast majority of the survey respondents said the purpose of their role is to drive business performance through advanced analytics.

According to the study, building a data science capability was the second most frequently cited ‘purpose’, tied with identifying opportunities for AI adoption.

Just 26 percent of respondents said the purpose of their role is to implement sustainable data management and governance practices.

Data leaders are clearly looking to the future when it comes to articulating the purpose of their roles. This is particularly crucial as technologies such as blockchain, data science, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) cloud computing and Internet of Things (IoT) becomes integral part of business.

But some may be ignoring or downplaying the traditional data challenges that are still present in many organisations.

“They will need to balance their advanced initiatives with more foundational investments to give their data strategies the best chances of succes,” the report says.

Some executives may initially have resisted the idea that their instincts might not be the best tool for guiding their companies to prosperity. But the Middle East and Africa’s data leaders are successfully proving their worth and combating these old-fashioned ways of thinking.

The research shows that the region’s data leaders are now laying the groundwork for data-driven business processes. Four in 10 now have a formal data strategy, and a further 32 percent are developing one.

“The days are gone when someone could say ‘I’m a very good leader’ in finance or in business development just from experience,” says Mr Ndungi.

“We are past the phase whereby we could only use our ‘gut feel’ and our experience to make decisions.”

Mr Nasila notes that he is “not so sure if a lot of organisations have clearly defined data strategies which articulate where and how you’re going to use data.”

The data leaders who responded to the survey are responsible for delivering on a range of different goals. These include increasing revenue and market share, generating operational efficiencies, uncovering customer insights, improving the customer experience and reducing operating costs.

But in order to do any of this efficiently, data and analytics leaders must first take the time to define their strategies and use them to secure the leadership buy-in they will need to execute their plans.

While some organisations are starting to make data-driven decisions, there’s still a long way to go, the research reveals.

The report also identifies five core challenges that data and analytics leaders must overcome in order to become truly data-driven.

More than half of data and analytics leaders are grappling with poor organisational understanding of the value of data, making this the most frequently cited challenge in the region.

“The hype has made things worse,” Mr Ndungi explains. “When you hear a competitor is hiring a data person you run to the market and start recruiting without exactly knowing why you need one.”

Breaking down data silos and centralising data storage is the second most frequently cited data challenge, suggesting that many data leaders are still working to give their programs the right foundations.

The fact that 35.6 percent of the survey respondents say they struggle to access enough high-quality data supports this conclusion. Meanwhile, 21.8 percent cite a lack of leadership buy-in or support as a key challenge.

“I have heard of cases where people train 20 or 30 data scientists and they sit in the office drinking tea, doing nothing,” notes Mr Ndungi.

The costs to are a hindrance too: “Being a start-up and being so new, we just cannot afford to spend upwards of Sh350,000 per month,” explains Louise de Beer. “It is one thing to sign up for Sh10,000 today. But in a few months’ time, the same amount might be exponentially more,” she continues. “So, hedging against that foreign exchange rate is an issue.”

Finally, 29.9 percent of respondents say that lacking a comprehensive strategy is holding them back – underlining just how difficult it is to deliver on business objectives without one.




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