In South Africa it’s difficult to be optimistic about a business environment where companies are shedding jobs and closing their doors, and the short-term economic future looks dark, with minuscule growth predicted.
Can businesses fare better if they push data-driven initiatives and use analytics to reduce costs, operate more efficiently and enhance their customer experience?
Paul Morgan, business unit lead for Data, Planning and Analytics at Altron Karabina, believes they can – and that organisations pursuing a data agenda have a massive competitive advantage in difficult times.
“Despite Gartner telling us that data & analytics initiatives have been a key priority for CIOs worldwide for the last decade, many companies in South Africa still struggle to get accurate, contextual results from their IT systems in time,” he says. “Extracting to Excel is still the starting point for many analytical exercises at these companies. Even those businesses that can automate dozens of reports often focus purely on producing stats on what transactions have happened, where and when they occurred and who was involved,” he continues. “That’s not enough. If you focus only on lagging KPIs, it’s often too late to do anything about it.”
Morgan believes that to gain true competitive advantage, companies need to look further than this traditional approach to analytics. “BI solutions have been built over the last two decades to try and answer a wide range of questions about a business’s historical activity. But to gain real insight, organisations should start asking more specific questions – in Microsoft’s words ‘sharp questions’ – and use the results to make changes in how they approach business. The old reports can still be used – they measure the results before and after the change – but modern analytics help you understand what change is needed.”

For example, traditional BI would enable you to understand what sales had occurred, in which geographical areas, in which industry sectors, and over which periods. It is important to have that feedback, but those facts have already happened – they can’t be altered. To make change now, you should be asking questions such as which of your customers have the highest lifetime value (CLV), and what options would be appropriate to improve the CLV of your next-best customer cohort, given what you’ve learnt about the best performers.
It’s still important to get the basics right. “Data consolidation and modelling is absolutely necessary. Data governance themes, such as security, quality and master data management are also vital. You can’t change your business if you’re not sure of your current numbers,” says Morgan, “but you also need to have the benefit of modern visualisation tools, augmented with AI, to allow you to focus on giving business users the answers they really need to change the business.
“For example, we’re working now with a vehicle sales organisation,” says Morgan. “Traditionally, these types of companies want dashboards to show sales by geography, by industry, by month, against targets. However, this client wants to use analytics to show which clients are unlikely to buy a new vehicle after the expiry of the motor plan, based on service history, complaints and other behavioural data. This will give them the ability to influence the client positively before they purchase a competing vehicle. I think they have a far better chance of weathering this difficult economic period than the rest of their market sector.
“Some organisations, especially in the retail, finance and telecommunication sectors, have been using advanced analytics and data science solutions for years, but it is only recently that this capability has become accessible to smaller businesses. Thanks to the arrival of Microsoft Azure data centres in the country providing massive computing power on-tap, and Azure Machine Learning and AI capabilities offering pre-built AI algorithms, any organisation has the capability to build an analytics framework at a relatively low cost. Power BI, Microsoft’s industry leading analytics tool has also revolutionised the market with its ease of use and powerful visualisation capabilities.”
Because of Microsoft’s ubiquitous partner programme, free trials of tools such as Power BI, Azure and Azure Machine Learning, and free training portals such as edX, skills are becoming readily available. “Microsoft is perfectly positioned to be the main provider of analytics technology to light the way for any organisation’s data-driven initiatives,” Morgan says. “All that’s needed is the business will to drive that agenda.”