Big Data in Africa: IBM Dissects a Developing Trend in a Developing Market
Africa is rapidly gaining on the rest of the world in optimising the benefits of big data, but there are still challenges which need to be overcome if the region is to embrace the trend fully.
While stereotypical concerns revolve around security and privacy issues, Cory Wiegert, IBM Software Group’s Product Director for Africa believes that challenges regarding trust, resiliency, budget constraints, enterprises strategies and cross-departmental collaboration are much more pressing on the continent at present.
African Business Review (ABR): Firstly, if you were to look at the development of big data in Africa as a timeline, at what stage would you say it is at now, in comparison to the rest of the world?
Cory Wiegert (CW): Africa is rapidly catching up to the rest of the world in terms of big data. The IBM Center for Applied Insights report on IT Pacesetters focusing on Nigeria and Kenya reveals that 40 percent of businesses are in the planning stages of a big data project, in comparison with the global average of 51 percent.
Twelve percent of Kenyan and Nigerian firms have big data projects live, just short of the 13 percent global mean. While telco's have an enormous amount of data, government digitisation, open data with government, usage of unstructured data and big data mining is yet to reach the level of maturity we have seen in other markets.
ABR: Given Africa’s status as an emerging market, what differences have you noticed in how the trend has been managed compared to other regions?
CW: In general, we are seeing more desire for analytics and usage of business analytic type applications. There is a push for more understanding of what data is out there and what value can be derived from it.
In Africa, there is a general concern around data and data sources. Given the proliferation of data sources with the same type of data, duplicate data and data which may or may not have been manipulated; the trend we see tends to focus on cleaning, standardising and starting to build a level of trust of newly built data sources.
In other markets, because of the early adoption of analytics and data warehouses, the cleansing and trust of data sources was an inherent part of the evolution of reporting. So, as reporting evolved to dashboards, on to analytics and now big data and big data mining, the data was being kept clean all along with the trust and cleansing being done while data was loaded to the new analytics technology sources.
ABR: Do you see the market status as a positive thing in being able to eradicate potential old habits instilled in more settled regions, or does the lack of maturity inhibit the management of the trend?
CW: From the perspective of eradicating potentially old habits, we see it as an advantage because the technology, standardised use cases and differentiated business models have been proven and can be adopted immediately.
The growing pains of waiting for technology and mind set changes can be avoided and enterprises wanting to advance by using big data in their businesses can jump to what has been already ascertained. We also see the use of unstructured data to be more advanced here than in other regions.
Africa still faces challenges in cleaning up of historical data and migrating to big data type technologies while continuing to function as institutions. So, while the cleansing and standardisation is happening, new data in the old mechanisms continues to flow into the system. A good number of users and organizations in Africa have had limited experience in data cleansing or standardisation. This means that there is a general lack of skills in advanced techniques or advanced technologies.
There may also be a lack of knowledge of what the old habits are. Many of the teams who are trying to help with big data solutions, might not really understand the concept of big data. We at IBM believe that with the adequate skills enablement, there may be a leap to the new models. This has to be accompanied by a focus on education on concept of volume, velocity, veracity and variety of data and how to extract value given those 4 Vs.
ABR: A major concern for people when discussing big data is around the issue of privacy, so firstly, do you feel that companies are doing enough to offset these concerns, and if not, what do you feel needs to be done to help find a solution?
CW: To some extent the issue of data privacy is a bit of paranoia and unwarranted. There is a fear of data privacy, yet the same people raising issues of data privacy are putting their most private data in the public domain every day. Because big data, open data and the use of big data is new to the market, there is a fear of the unknown, and fear of what that unknown will bring.
That being said, companies can do more. With big data and the use of big data comes the need for security and ensuring the data, devices and transactions on those devices are safe. We have seen a larger market swell around security topics, which we believe is in front of the swell around big data solutions.
We believe we are just entering the phase of investment around big data projects and technologies.
ABR: How do you see big data in Africa developing in general over the coming months and years and what challenges need to be overcome?
CW: A 2014 Frost and Sullivan report titled Big Data Outlook in Africa reiterates that "technological advancements at each stage of the big data value chain, notably the proliferation of connected devices such as sensors, will continue to drive the big data trend in Africa”.
Continued investments in network infrastructure and the ease of adoption of various analytics platforms will also contribute to the emergence of big data solutions.
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”