People needed to derive value from data

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James Hickman, MD of SAQlik.
James Hickman, MD of SAQlik.

Unless people are empowered to become data literate, businesses will never get the most out of their second most valuable asset - data - and the hidden insights in that data will be lost.

This is the view of James Hickman, MD of business intelligence and data analytics company SAQlik, addressing ITWeb Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit 2019 delegates in Sandton today.

While many companies state their employees are their most valuable asset, the reality is that most organisations' business intelligence strategy focuses far more on technology and data than on people, he said.

He believes businesses would benefit hugely by empowering their people to become data literate. He defines data literacy as the ability of individuals to read, work with, analyse and argue with data in order to obtain deeper insights than that presented by the data alone.

According to Hickman, of the six components that could be termed the "path to value" - data, reporting, analysis, decision, action and value - only the first two do not require the direct involvement of people. As one moves higher up the value chain, so people's participation becomes increasingly important.

He dismissed the notion that artificial intelligence (AI), rather than data literate people, would provide the answers business requires. Rather, he said, AI can actually hold the business back from achieving real, valuable insights as it cannot provide answers to questions that are not asked, or that could emerge from other data-inspired insights.

As powerful as AI is, it is necessary to guard against the very real risk of AI contributing to making people dumber.

"The problem is not whether machines think, it's whether people do, and whether they are sufficiently data literate to be able to generate insights that can deliver value.

"What's required is self-service BI that can link people, data and technology in order to find actionable insights," he said.

However, this is often easier said than done.

The problem is that in opting to go the self-service BI route, many organisations assume all individuals in the company are at the same level of data literacy. This is patently incorrect: within any organisation there are people who do not trust data, those who would like to be able to use it but do not know how, those who think they know everything there is to know about using data (but possibly do not), and those for whom dealing with data is second nature.

The key, therefore, is to align people with the technology and the data, and give people access to the right data that will actively assist them in developing the insights relevant to their jobs.

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