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UK firms miss out on lucrative data science exploitation

The Economist Intelligence Unit finds UK companies struggling to cash in on data exploitation, in a SAS-sponsored research study

Since 2011, there has been an increase in UK companies that cannot make sense of the data they use in their business activities, according to the The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

In 2011, the EIU found 8% of global respondents strongly agreed that their company had so much data that they struggled to make sense of it. In 2016, this figure has grown to 17% in the UK and tripled to 24% in the rest of the world.

It also found one-third of the British companies they surveyed for a SAS-sponsored research project believe they have “little or no capability for using data to open up new markets”. A quarter saw using data to come up with new products or services as difficult.

The research, laid out in a report Big data: Forging corporate capabilities for the long-term, revisits work done in 2011. In this report, the EIU team surveyed 632 respondents, with 18% of respondents in the UK, and with 20% CIOs and 4% CEOs.

More than half – 57% for the UK and 53% for the rest of the world – said they probably “leverage” only half of their valuable data. 

Mark Wilkinson, SAS regional vice-president of northern Europe, believes UK companies are missing a trick when it comes to data.

Companies with a clear data strategy, the report also found, enjoy better financial results – at least according to themselves. Some 35% of UK respondents that have a well-defined data strategy reported stronger financial performance than their competitors. This is slightly behind the rest of the world, with 38% of what the report calls “strategic data managers” reporting a similar performance.

Similarly, only 10% of respondents from UK companies that merely understand the value of data and are marshalling resources to take better advantage of them (“aspiring data managers”) make the same performance claim, in comparison to 16% in the rest of the world.

If this is so, said Wilkinson, then a clear data strategy could help UK companies mitigate the effects of Brexit, “fighting uncertainty” with better data modeling.

“Even before Brexit, when companies were in a less uncertain market, they were devoting time and effort to better their data strategies. Brexit has further enforced that,” he said.

“The first element [to a clear data strategy] is to target the right set of data to get the biggest impact for your company. Then it is about the [mathematics-based] skills. It is also about data strategy being a board-level issue, though data itself resides at all levels.”

Rise of the CDO difference between 2011 and 2016

According to Wilkinson, board executives taking more responsibility for the strategic use of data, along with emergence of the chief data officer [CDO] role, marks a difference between 2011 and 2016.

The CIO has a bit more heft in organisations today than five years ago, said Wilkinson. This would seem to borne out by the EIU research, where the CIO is still primarily responsible for an organisation’s data strategy (34% UK, 40% rest of world), despite the rise of the CDO.

Overall, the report found the UK to be trailing behind the rest of the world in some respects.

Globally, organisations were seeking to improve data skills in the workforce by hiring and training employees who understand data and the business (31%), training current employees so they become data savvy (36%) and instilling what the report calls “critical-thinking skills” to solve business problems with data.

Read more about the business value of data

However, only 25% of UK businesses are hiring and training employees who understand data and the business, and 34% are training current employees to be data savvy.

More UK respondents (52%) claim to understand the value of data than in the rest of the world (38%). But fewer (26%) have a “well-defined data management strategy” that focuses resources on collecting and analysing the most valuable data than the rest of the world (34%).

“The research shows companies have moved forward in their data strategies. But it also shows they don’t believe they have reached a point where they are making full use of their data,” said Wilkinson.

“Currently, analysing internal unstructured text data – such as customer inquiries, reports, technical and business notes, and web click-stream data – is a significant focus for data initiatives.

“However, external unstructured data and internet of things data sources will command a greater focus in the next 12 months and present further opportunities for organisations.”

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