Building businesses with Big Data - the African way
Written by Kidane Z. Haile, IBM Software Group Director of Information Management Labs, Africa
Africa’s technology and business leaders have in their hands an unprecedented opportunity to surpass their global counterparts.
If we can harness the vast and growing sources of information known as “Big Data”, members of the C-suite – particularly Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) and Chief Information Officers (CIOs), who increasingly share the responsibility for growth and innovation – stand to not only significantly boost our organisations’ bottom lines, but catapult our brands into positions of global leadership and best practice.
But to do so requires uniquely African approaches to the selection and use of Big Data which align with our continent’s fast-evolving socio-economic and technological landscape.
The currency of data
What is Big Data? The Internet and computing technologies have, particularly in the past decade, resulted in exponential growth in digital information which exists in the world – in fact, more than 90 per cent of data currently in existence was created in the past two years.
We call this abundance of information “Big Data”, and it has seismic implications for consumers, technologists, and business leaders alike.
Analysis of Big Data can identify trends, weaknesses, and opportunities which would be otherwise invisible to human observation – as long as the right tools and strategies are in place to convert these stockpiles of information into meaningful insights.
Many commentators are calling data the “next commodity”: like natural resources traditionally, those who can access and refine it will have increasingly clear advantages and growth potential over those who don’t.
CMOs and CIOs will need to work together to turn Big Data’s potential into tangible insights and improvements. Alliances between marketers and IT staff are already becoming more frequent, and for good reason.
They both count innovation as a major part of their portfolios; they share common goals around improving quality of services; and their efforts are held responsible for core organisational growth – or decline.
Big Data has relevance to all these areas and the complementary skills of the CMO and CIO are essential to its effective use.
Organisations the world over are taking steps to build Big Data into how they make decisions, invest, and even safeguard the future of entire populations.
But retrofitting existing technologies to manage and analyse Big Data is typically a prolonged and technically intensive task. By incorporating Big Data at the very foundation of their investment in technology and strategy, African CMOs and CIOs have the chance to get ahead of their global counterparts in their ability to make smarter, faster decisions.
For it to be effective, Africa needs to approach Big Data differently to the rest of the world. This is because Africa’s technological and infrastructural environments continue to diverge from those of other continents.
Mobile devices, for example, are the primary, often sole means of Internet access for a burgeoning percentage of the population.
That has already had significant impact on the evolution of e-commerce in Africa, where mobile-centric online marketplaces and peer-to-peer networks are seeing rapid success and growth – not the big e-tailing shops that dominate online trades in the United States or Europe.
That, in turn, will define the nature of Big Data in Africa, from the source (predominantly mobile devices and transactions) to what it is used for (building new marketplace platforms, or identifying gaps in current mobile payment channels).
Tapping mobile growth
African CMOs and CIOs have the distinct advantage of the many entrepreneurs from the burgeoning IT ecosystem of start-ups. These businesses are developing innovative means of tapping this growing mobile-based business landscape.
By adopting home-grown innovations from micro-payments, to retail supply chains and banking for the unbanked and using these to expand locally and globally, smart African CMOs and CIOs who work together will be able to more efficiently and effectively target consumers and deliver beyond their expectations.
That is not to say African business leaders cannot learn from their overseas counterparts when it comes to Big Data.
Take, for example, Nairobi’s latest efforts to reduce congestion and augment public transport services using Big Data and analytics. IBM’s approach will collect and analyse data from the Kenyan capital’s transport grid to predict and identify delays, automatically reroute transport to optimal pathways, and notify commuters via live SMS and mobile app updates – all based on a similar approach developed by IBM for Singapore’s transport network.
However, Kenya’s infrastructure lacks the coverage of sensors and monitoring infrastructure which the Singaporean system relies on for success.
IBM adapted the Singapore solution by drawing on algorithms and mobile phone data, allowing the base platform to deliver equal – if not better –results. By taking advantage of these opportunities, rather than approaching them as roadblocks, businesses can turn Big Data to its most powerful applications.
A smarter marketplace
These applications hold great promise for how CMOs and CIOs create more efficient marketplaces and seamless transactions.
Many of Africa’s most promising start-ups are turning global notions of e-commerce on their head, often through the canny use of mobile devices to form networks where buyers, sellers, and advice-givers can share both opportunities and information in a more fluid, physically unconstrained manner.
The same approaches hold promise for much larger companies and even governments. For example, creating more resilient networks for sharing public-service information is in practice not so different from developing online marketplaces for trading goods.
Big Data and analytics have the potential to enrich these networks with insight – into wherever inefficiencies and market failures are occurring, and how to potentially fix these.
Combined, they can match buyers and sellers more efficiently, or allow marketers to deliver more accurate recommendations for future purchases.
They can enable marketers to predict consumer behaviors and deliver messages with more timeliness and resonance than otherwise possible – with potentially life-saving results if applied to public-service announcements in industries like government and healthcare.
Only by joining their expertise in behavior and technology can CMOs and CIOs use Big Data to power growth and innovation in their organisations.
And only with approaches that leverage the nuances of our cities and cultures, rather than simply adhering to a “one-size-fits-all” global model, can Africa’s businesses and governments excel at Big Data – so much so that the rest of the world may soon turn to them for guidance.
For that to happen, though, Africa’s top leaders need to put Big Data on their agenda as a key opportunity.
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.”