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Skills shortage stymies the data revolution

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The scale, scope and complexity of change that comes along with the today’s technological revolution is unlike anything we’ve seen before, writes Gary Allemann, MD of Master Data Management.
The potential for advancement is made exponentially larger by emerging technology breakthroughs that continue in fields like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT). Underpinning these technologies is data. It is data that is the fuel for this transformation.
Like the revolutions that came before it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as it is becoming known, has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for citizens around the world. This technological revolution demands new skill sets, and unfortunately people have not advanced at the same speed as technology.
As a result, industries around the world find themselves in a position of having all the cutting-edge technologies in place, without the matching human expertise. South Africa is no different.
This leaves unanswered questions like, what can be done about the lack of data management experience and expertise? Ultimately, the importance of these scarce skills mean they must be built up in-house.

Why is the Fourth Industrial Revolution such a big deal?
This revolution impacts on business in four major ways: on customer expectations, product enhancement, collaborative innovation and organisational structures.
The commercial world is being restructured with the customer at its centre. We’re in the process of creating a whole new world of customer experiences, data-based services, and asset performance through analytics, which require new forms of collaboration. In short, the inevitable progression from simple digitisation (the Third Industrial Revolution) to innovation based on combinations of technologies (the Fourth Industrial Revolution) is forcing organisations to re-think everything when it comes to doing business.

What role does data play in the revolution?
There is a strong need for professionals who understand data, who have experience working with major database platforms as well as strong analytical, quantitative and problem-solving abilities. Unfortunately, such individuals are like unicorns and there is no debate that there is a shortage of skills both globally and in South Africa.
Data is particularly relevant when it comes to the customer experience (CX) discussion as organisations are currently examining how to change their business models to be more competitive. This entire process is data-driven. There is an increased demand for technologies like data governance and big data and the experts that can leverage this data to become more competitive.
Yet businesses cannot leverage these disciplines if the skills do not exist. It is difficult to find people with practical experience, as new graduates lack the knowledge and expertise to really apply theoretical knowledge in a business context.
This means organisations have to create their own experts and will need to look at upskilling existing IT and business staff to make them more data-savvy.
A good place to start when creating data management experts, is with qualifications like the Certified Information Management Professional (CIMP). However, qualifications take time, and while developing skills in this arena, it’s important to provision technologies that are user-friendly, intuitive and easy to learn. Viable candidates from within the organisation then need to be identified for upskilling. Here, it’s important to remember that while vendor-specific training is great, the resulting skill set is product-based which means that individuals still lack the business intelligence required to effectively apply their knowledge. In this regard, eLearning facilities can help bridge the skills gap, as well as create a common language across the organisation.

The solution must be local
It’s important to build these competencies in South Africa, rather than outsourcing. While it’s tempting to outsource to India, for example, because it seems like the cheapest option, in the long term this will become unsustainable due to language barriers and cultural differences.
Data sourced and used in South Africa has unique complexities linked to geography, culture and language use, as well the laws of the land. Intricacies that a remote consultant in another location with a different cultural background will not comprehend. This highlights a clear need for organisations that are hungry for data management experts to start their own internship programmes, and build on their own resources internally through upskilling.
It is possible for an individual with four to five years of business operations experience to be provided with the training to become a data steward, or to perform data analytics tasks with a view to learning how to perform business analytics.
To maintain the pace of the digital revolution, South Africa needs experts to lead it. A combination of internship programs, eLearning and on-the-job support as well as training for staff who are technically qualified, will enable organisations to build these competencies in-house.
For those companies that are hesitant about investing in the upskilling of staff, it’s time to paraphrase the great Henry Ford: the only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave, is not training them and having them stay.