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The Middle East has a data problem, there is too much of it. Can analytics help?

Big data has been around for decades but has gained traction now. So why are businesses taking an increased interest ? Growth, resilience and personalization.

The Middle East has a data problem, there is too much of it. Can analytics help?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Which companies come to mind when you hear about “10X growth”? Capital-powered new-age businesses that ride on the power of data to dramatically expand their customer base, right?

There’s no room for debate about whether the secret to business transformation — from marketing to manufacturing — is buried in the volume of data companies gather. 

“In the digital economy, data underpins every business decision,” says Omar Akar, Regional Vice President, Middle East & Emerging Africa, Pure Storage. “Data is growing exponentially.”

By 2025, business and consumer data will reach 175 zettabytes. According to IDC, if one were able to store 175ZB onto BluRay discs, then you’d have a stack of discs that can get you to the moon — 23 times. Even if you could download 175ZB on today’s largest hard drive, it would take 12.5 billion drives. And as an industry, we ship a fraction of that today.

To some, the key is to get the right data into the hands of the right people. And it’s not the amount of data that’s important; what organizations do with that data matters.

According to Ravi Acharya, Managing Director and Regional Head of SAS Middle East, Turkey and Africa, businesses across the Middle East and Africa are reaping the benefits of big data and data analytics. “I am amazed how advanced analytics impacts the acceleration of digital transformation in various industries, including banking, insurance, retail, and health.”

Essentially, big data allows businesses to listen and learn about customers better. Through this understanding, they can cater to and tap into their customers’ needs to give them the best user experience. “In addition, big data allows companies to connect with their customers on a more personalized level,” says Claudius Boller, Managing Director MENA and South Asia (excluding India) at Spotify.

Big data has allowed Spotify to tap into each user’s music streaming preferences to recommend new music to discover actively, Boller adds. “We are continuously using data to tread a path where we can create a holistic understanding of our user base by optimizing the platform for long-term experiences.”

In fact, according to a Dataiku study, 71% of respondents from the UAE say they have been using more data over the past five years, and an equal number expect to use even more data in the coming five years compared to an EMEA average of just 52%. 

“The Middle East’s big data industry will be worth almost $30 billion by 2025 and expected to reduce cost by 10% and drive revenue up by 8%,” says Kunal Badiani, Regional Head, MoEngage – Middle East, Africa and Turkey. “An overwhelming majority of businesses in the UAE are utilizing data sales targets. A similar number of firms are also collecting data to monitor the ad campaigns’ impact and craft social media strategies.” 

Many countries in the region are transforming their economies using data. Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, said humans should be open to innovation and find new ways to tackle problems together, adding that humans can deal with global problems like climate change through a data-driven approach.

Meanwhile, telecom operators are using customer data to enhance revenue assurance and fraud management, analyze network quality of service and develop new insights into customer usage patterns. 

Banks are using customer data to understand their preferences in products and services better and monitor their real-time behavior. “For instance, a bank could send an offer to a customer based on the activity on an app or credit card data from a purchased item,” Badiani adds.

HARNESSING POTENTIAL OF DATA

However, in the region, many businesses have access to scads of data about their customers who attend their events and engage with them on social media, yet they tap into very little of it. All of that data is meaningless if they can’t act on it—and quickly.

“When we talk to customers, a recurring challenge they are facing when it comes to making data-driven decisions is around having fast access to the required data,” says Akar. “Traditional storage solutions aren’t built to handle the sheer size and scale, along with the speed and complexity of today’s data. This is holding organizations back from harnessing the full potential of the data to drive innovation, increase productivity and efficiency, react quickly to the changing macro-economic climate and provide more customized employee and customer experiences.”

For example, quick access to data can help retailers build profiles for customer behavior regarding a specific product in the retail sector. Similarly, in the supply chain, quick access to internal historical sales data, supplier performance records, point-of-sale consumer data, and landed cost data can help operation teams better identify problem patterns, bottlenecks, and other opportunities to reduce costs.

To maximize the value of constant data, integrating organization-wide allows teams to capture, view, and analyze data in real-time, improving business operations.

DEMOCRATIZING DATA

The challenge is that many companies can’t bridge the data gap. Internal data specialists know how to access the company’s stats but may not know the most useful information for the business. Meanwhile, the business managers know what information they need but don’t necessarily have the tools, or the skills, to access the data efficiently.

Enabling people to drive business value from data and analytics can be achieved through analytics democratization.

“As we become more data-driven and analytical in our thinking and work, analytics are no longer the exclusive territory of statisticians and specialists. Anyone, at any moment, should be able to use data and analytics insights to make decisions. This approach can revolutionize business decision-making,” says Acharya.

Data is critical to decision making, says Akar. “Whether for the CEO or the line manager; organizations need to ensure that the data can be easily and quickly accessed to aid faster and better decision making.”

However, while some brands in the region shift from campaign-centric engagement to customer-centric engagement, utilizing data and converting it into insights, Badiani says, “In practice, many brands still end up fumbling around in the dark and not harnessing the data to make this happen.”

To identify and convert the right data into insights, brands need to follow an insights-led framework, allowing teams across sales, marketing, and operations to access the data from a centralized database and not work in silos.

“This ultimately helps the teams work in tandem and not only improve engagement but also lead to better customer retention, resulting in high loyalty and increased LTV in the process,” adds Badiani. 

But do companies have the skilled talent to understand data and translate it into faster decision-making?

“As the big data and data analytics markets continue to grow, there are not enough of them to meet all demands. The talent gap exists, and we must aid in developing future generations of data scientists,” says Acharya. 

The Ministry of State for Artificial Intelligence in the UAE has set the goal to become a global leader in AI by 2031. KSA is working towards having 40% of the workforce trained in data literacy in the next eight years. Data scientist is the number one job profile in Turkey and among the top 10 highest-demand jobs in the UAE. 

DEVELOPING DATA CULTURE

Experts say a solid data culture needs to be embraced for businesses to utilize data to deliver value and purpose. Organizations that foster a collaborative, data-driven culture will ultimately see this result in a competitive advantage in today’s challenging business environment.

“Businesses can only become data-driven if they effectively incorporate a data-first culture. Most companies struggle to build a data-driven culture and handle situations where employees make decisions based on gut instincts instead of data-driven facts. A data-driven culture also needs skills as it should start from the C-suite executives and permeate through each division of the organization,” says Badiani.

INCREASED SPENDING ON DATA ANALYTICS

Meanwhile, as businesses realize the combination of big data and advanced analytics provides valuable insights and endless opportunities, spending on analytics solutions is increasing in the region. 

The MEA big data analytics market is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 13.0%, from $12.87 million in 2022 to $26.82 million by 2028.

“As companies seek ways to cope with current challenges, develop resiliency, ensure sustainability, and make the best decisions for their business’s future, big data and analytics will garner more attention,” says Acharya. Consequently, spending will increase, and the market will keep growing.

Traditionally, companies emphasize transforming frontline services — where end-users interact with them. However, to have a significant impact, it’s also critical to transform the back-end infrastructure, says Akar.

“As such, we see forward-thinking organizations in the region investing in modern storage infrastructure. More recently, via Storage-as-a-service that offers a true OPEX model with the flexibility and scalability to adapt to changing business needs and the added benefit of being a more sustainable approach that ensures fast, easy access to data for a host of use cases like analytics and AI,” adds Akar.

As more organizations are embracing analytics, AI, and cloud technology to become more resilient, enhance customer experience, improve decision-making, and meet their sustainability objectives, Acharya says, “Businesses are operationalizing analytics and finding innovative ways to gain a competitive advantage.” 

And while an increasing number of organizations are incorporating data-driven decisions into their business models, experts emphasize the need for advanced analytics, which necessitates use-case-appropriate data integration, data platforms, and data management.

According to Gartner, more than 60% of developed models were never operationalized. A SAS study shows that 90% of models take more than three months to deploy. 

“This leads to lost time, money, and effort. There has to be a structured process for coordinating resources across analytics, IT, and the business. Also, organizations must set a clear business goal and allocate appropriate resources in terms of the right talents, technology, and a commitment by management,” says Acharya.

When these are addressed, businesses can deliver relevant, interactive, automated decisions at scale, whether it is increased efficiency of credit risk scoring processes or getting data-driven insights to introduce better policies leading to positive social impact. 

Boller says that investment in machine learning and big data is crucial for companies. “What companies need to ask when using data: is it bringing my brand closer to my audience? Is it enriching their experience?”

In the Middle East, as businesses push through unpredictability to be nimble and stay relevant in the cutthroat market, processes are automated and access to data is democratized, and employees are upskilled along the way, having data at fingertips has become crucial.

“Companies who recognize the strategic importance of big data and the insights it may provide will be the winners over the long haul,” says Acharya.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More

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