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Key takeaways from "All roads lead to DATA"

Data forms an integral part of any business strategy in the modern-day world. Effectively embracing the opportunities that are present within current information technology trends can help leaders and organisations exponentially advance. But how do we do this?

In this webinar in the Leadership Foresight Webinar Series, Prof. Martin Butler, Associate Professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, facilitated a discussion about how All Roads Lead to DATA.

Conversationalists included Dr. Emmanuel K. Kalunga (Head of Data Science and Business Intelligence at OrderIn),  Maritza Curry (Head of Data at RCS), Yolanda Smit (DnA Capability Leader at BSG) and Stuart Jones (Programme Director at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change). They discussed how data plays an integral role within business strategy for leaders, and how we can embrace the opportunities that current information technology trends present.

“There are things that any company or organisation wants to achieve using data,” Emmanuel outlined. “It's very important, from the beginning, to know what these things are. It's very important to get your people involved in the process of defining what it is that you wish to achieve using data. Once your people are involved and you have defined your objectives, you need to get the processes in place to ensure that whatever you are trying to achieve is feasible – and you have the right technology in place to support you.”

In light of this, Stuart mentioned that understanding the socio-political context surrounding data is critical. From a business perspective, he outlined that there is still no better way of knowing your customer than talking to them, engaging in quantitative research, and being in a conversation with them as much as you can. “The technologies we have available to do that now are manifold - social media platforms, on the phone, by email, surveys, focus groups, and so on. Constantly updating your understanding of what's going on inside the data itself is critical. Oftentimes, one single insight can be far more valuable than multiple data sets. Getting to that core understanding of the data is what is important – and that’s something that gives you competitive leverage.” 

Indeed, it is the value that the data brings that is what makes it so useful. “This points toward something that we are currently not developing within our skills,” said Maritza, “Which is information design or storytelling. Data scientists and analysts are very good at pulling a story out of the data. But they're not very good at telling that story to a business audience, making the connection between the context of the data, and how your business works within the world.”

Yolanda agreed, adding that “It is difficult to embrace what the data is showing us if we don't necessarily understand the story behind it. All of the technical jargon is complex. But, if we start thinking about product data not as an intangible asset, but as a product in and of itself, then everything around how we manage data and how we think about the value of data starts to become clear.” 

“One of the most important skills that a data leader absolutely has to have is the ability to build communities – not only in their own organisation but also within their organisation's network. If data is really going to become an asset that is used responsibly, then you have to get people excited about it. You've gotta show them that it has immense value. If you cannot establish a positive data culture, it doesn't matter if you have beautiful data or not,” said Yolanda.

Prof. Butler agreed, having observed that there is a major shift in the mindset of organisations that value data.

Maritza continued, “You have to understand the problem or the opportunity. Then you can quantify it and measure it – and get value out of it. Essentially, there is only one strategy and that's a business strategy. The data strategy, digital strategy, and people strategy – all of those are the building blocks of a business strategy. So, data forms part of the overall strategic map. I never start a data strategy unless I understand the business strategy because the only strategy your data has is how it will help make your business strategy successful.”

With data playing such a crucial role in business, collaborating towards a common goal is where the treasure lies. Emmanuel shared his first-hand experience of having learned this the hard way when he transitioned from academia into business: “I realised, after a few attempts, that the numbers and stats I was very excited about presenting were not impressing anyone. So, I had to start learning and interacting. I learned by interacting with businesses and getting more involved in their conversations. I learned about the kind of things they talk about and I found out what was of interest to them. It's only when you start sharing an interest with the business and stakeholders that you learn to speak their language. Bringing this into my work with data, I could translate my stats into something that made sense to them, and actually made a difference for their business.”

“Our world is chaotic and it's deeply interconnected and really contextual,” remarked Stuart. “We have these unprecedented events happening regularly at the moment. As an example, COVID impacted any data modelling that you might have done around your business. But the more we understand the context, the more likely we are to work with data to be able to predict such events; and keep our ears to the ground to enable as deep an understanding as possible of the way we fit into the world.”

If you missed this webinar, “All Roads Lead to DATA”, facilitated by Prof. Martin Butler, it's available here. In it, we embrace the opportunities that current information technology trends present.

The Leadership Foresight Webinar Series is presented by Stellenbosch Business School Executive Development (SBS-ED) in collaboration with the Stellenbosch Business School Alumni Association. This free, live series takes place over the course of three events, facilitated by heavy-weight subject matter experts and consultants, with contributions from panels of subject matter experts and industry leaders. Guests from across the African continent and abroad speak about the past, present, and future focus of leadership in Africa.

Don't miss the next event in the series, We're all in this TOGETHER”, facilitated by Dr Natasha Winkler-Titus, in which she and industry experts will unpack the importance of embracing the UBUNTU philosophy in businesses, and how leaders can make this shift. Register here for this event taking place on 27 October 2022.

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