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The future of data analytics: Q&A with Looker CEO Frank Bien

(Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens)

What is it going to take for enterprises to make that step towards a “transformational” level of data and analytics?

The key is to provide access to data to every employee across an organisation – democratising access to insights. 

In the past, businesses relied on data experts using expert tools to report on what happened last week or last month - for example, pulling reports on quarterly sales year-over-year or across verticals. This process was slow and required finding - and retaining - highly trained analytics experts.

This over-reliance on a select few data experts fuelled a rise in new, self-service analytics tools that were accessible and used by a greater number of users who were looking for reporting and visualisations. Over time, these tools, while generally easy to use, exposed limitations in the amount of data that could be visualised and removed governance in what the actual data meant. In the end, this created data chaos and merely provided a backward-facing look at what happened, not what was happening in the moment. 

We’re now at what we believe is the third wave of analytics and business intelligence – in which business users can gain insights that are near real-time, in context, and that are relevant to the business process or problem at hand. With a data platform, every business unit has instant access to the data they need, which means no data bottlenecks. This results in an improved ability to ask any question of the data and derive insights, as well as ultimately unlocking the full value of the data, leading to data-driven cultures and better decision making.

What impact has GDPR compliance had on data analytics?

The introduction of GDPR represents one of the most comprehensive changes to data regulation ever, forcing companies to think differently about the way they approach, store, access and manage data.

Last year, IT teams were focused on ensuring their organisations were compliant with the directive, eliminating the risk of both reputational damage and significant fines. In addition, GDPR has bought with it standardisation, levelling the playing field for organisations and creating an equal opportunity for businesses to appeal to customers as a champion of consumer privacy.

Access to data is now so ubiquitous, that in many cases businesses have stockpiled every bit of customer data they possibly can. Of course, a greater volume of data can mean better insights, but much of this enormous volume of data simply isn’t used and becomes a messy ‘data sprawl’.

Data sprawl is a threat to GDPR compliance. These organisations struggle to ascertain what customer data they have stored, where it is saved, and how it is being accessed day-to-day. GDPR is forcing organisations to ask themselves whether or not certain data is truly useful and helping them to solve business challenges. If it isn’t, then why store it? Ultimately, by having a single access point to all that data and not allowing it to be extracted for further use is the most effective way to remain GDPR compliant.

As businesses continue to grow and change, they must incorporate robust data governance infrastructures that allow users to get the insights they need without putting sensitive data at risk. Building GDPR compliant procedures into all data processes and applications should be viewed as an ongoing process, rather than a one-time project.

With the rise of the chief data officer (CDO) in the last few years, to what extent does data now have a seat in the boardroom?

Forrester research from last year showed that 51 per cent of organisations had already appointed a CDO, while a further 18 per cent planned to do so in the near future, so this shift is already widespread. With the responsibilities of CTOs, CSOs and CIOs stretched ever thinner - as they tackle other digital transformation and security issues - inevitably the CDO is being granted greater freedom to shape data strategy throughout the business.

The CDO logically must have a ‘seat in the boardroom’, given the potential of data to shape insights across every department and level of the organisation. The ‘transformational’ level of data maturity mentioned above only comes with full buy-in from the board and an awareness from staff at all levels of how they can analyse and leverage data.

What industries do you foresee being most impacted by data in the next few years?

One industry where we see data analytics is having a fundamental impact is retail. Retailers are focused on building a deeper understanding of their customers’ habits and needs, both online and in-store. Data can help with that.

The retailers that fully embrace a modern data strategy will ride the wave of changing shopper behaviours over the coming years. They will use intelligent data processes to stay one step ahead of customer tastes, monitor merchandising and track the performance of different products.

What’s more, the democratisation of data allows overworked developers at smaller retailers to focus on higher value tasks, such as fine-tuning their website or improving UX within their app.

2018 was a watershed year in data privacy and ethics – what trends do you predict in this regard for the next few years?

C-level executives, including Chief Privacy Officers (CPOs), as well as boards of directors will factor in ethical considerations as they’re planning data collection strategies. GDPR should just be a starting point – the conscientious business will look beyond mere compliance and consider ‘what is fair?’ and ‘what is the right thing to do?’.

In the next few years we will also see continued pressure from the public and governments encouraging organisations to do business sustainably and ethically. This societal and legislative wave will push corporations to put in place ethics codes that better address the unique challenges of our digital world.

What's more, to avoid public backlash and retain customer trust, companies will establish formal policies around transparency, accountability and ethics for themselves, their clients and partners.

We’ll also see more clearly defined strategies that encourage a modern approach to analytics. Organisations will become more data-led, moving from using data to back decisions, to using data to make them.

Frank Bien, CEO, Looker