Alteryx Chief Data and Analytics Officer Alan Jacobson discusses how early use of data analytics helped influence modern practices.
By Alan Jacobson
The past can be a valuable educator. As we look back into the history and the learnings of data analytics, we cannot help but look at two extraordinary cases. First, we have John Snow, not to be confused with television’s Jon Snow, a doctor battling against the cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854 and Florence Nightingale, a statistician serving as a nurse-trainer during the Crimean War, where she was responsible for organising care for wounded soldiers in the army field hospitals.
John was an obstetrician who had domain knowledge about how diseases spread. His early use of data analysis helped discover the source of the cholera outbreak and convinced council members to take control of the situation, effectively ending the pandemic in London. This bears some resemblance to today’s practice of contact tracing used in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similarly, Florence Nightingale was also an early data analyst who discovered that the people that were dying in army field hospitals, largely were not from battle injuries, but from regular illnesses and diseases that spread within the groups. Being able to discern detailed patterns without the assistance of modern day computers, she managed to isolate each case, and introduced new sanitary procedures for use in the field hospitals, such as a standardised routine of hand washing, which successfully reduced the mortality rate by a staggering 40 percent.
The similarity between these two heroes were that they were not data scientists at all. It is the understanding of their own domain, with the right tools, that enabled them to become what is known as a data scientist today. Companies can learn a lot from them.
Today, we have technology that are thousand times faster. We look at analysing data to change businesses, or the world. Digital transformation is taking place as we speak. While the technology we have improves, the principles that John and Florence taught us stay the same. Enterprises need to find ways to excel with data analytics and look to leverage the right toolsto change the business. However,
data is not just for data scientists. In the hands of experts from different fields, data could show new and innovative practices or patterns yet undiscovered.
In Asia Pacific, we see the Salvation Army, one of the world’s largest social welfare organisation with more than 1.6 million members in over 120 countries, automated their data migration in an easy and repeatable way. With over 200,000 rows of data, they were able to process, prep and move data from disparate systems, blending them together and generating a savings of over 2,000 hours of manual
Nippon Caterpillar Japan has also streamlined their analytic operations. Their business comprises four divisions: new and used construction vehicle sales, rentals and maintenance service. Their biggest challenge was organizing data managed by each business unit. In the past, Nippon Caterpillar has collected their data in siloes. Today, they can consolidate and analyse the data, allowing them to
streamline their information analysis operations more effectively.
The Power to Change Cultures Lies in its People
People are an integral part in any businesses’ success and the extraordinary thing about data is that anyone can make sense out of it. The hard part is changing business processes. Do we allow the people to feel empowered and to change the business processes? If someone has a way of doing something new and different in analytics, does he or she get to suggest that method as a new process? One of the most important ingredients in helping transform a company is to have a culture of analytics and a willingness to change. Organizations should strive to create a culture where analytics is embedded into its DNA.
More companies use analytics to get ahead of their competition. They are leveraging data, democratising analytics, optimising processes and upskilling their people. Approximately 69 percent of executives in large corporations are using advanced analytics to drive better decisions and 27 percent are using analytics for innovation and disruption. The International Institute of Analytics stated that while analysing companies’ digital maturity, they discovered a direct correlation to the profitability of companies that are more analytically mature, to the ones that are less so.
In taking a deeper dive into the right platform that enables businesses to solve everyday problems, Harvard Business Review concluded that no one seems to be satisfied with questions answered by a central team and that people prefer to be self-sufficient in obtaining the answers they seek from data.
Our vision for digital transformation is to empower data democratisation, allowing the folks that have the questions, be it the marketing department, the HR team, the legal department or the accountants, to be able to get answers to the questions themselves, and to not have to rely on an IT organisation or an analytics group. We recognize that any data worker in an organization has the capability to tackle sophisticated analytical tasks, if empowered with the right training, technology and tools.
We should put the power of data in the hands of the people now, regardless of their professional backgrounds. Throughout this pandemic, participants from our ADAPT program are mainly individuals who are looking to upskill in analytics and have minimum or no background in analytics. Data fluency is not just a tool but perhaps the key to riding out the waves of uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought about. Similarly, companies seeking to survive or thrive during the coming economic downturn would also need to have a renewed perspective of how data analytics can be helpful and who should be using data.
Innovation and people go hand in hand. So, if you are thinking about transforming your businesses and adapting new practices to thrive during this pandemic, perhaps the questions should not be how data can help you, but instead, how you can use data to empower your people and have them become the heroes of their own fields.
(Ed. Featured image by Photographer by Rakicevic Nenad.)