By Upuli De Abrew

The African continent is poised for economic growth, rapid urbanisation and increasing incomes with its population expected to reach about 1.7 billion people by 2030, making it crucial for businesses to fast-track data strategies if they are to remain competitive and benefit from these developments.

A major challenge in achieving these goals is that data and its associated processes have historically been seen as an IT function; while the IT department might have the knowledge and technical expertise to execute data strategies, many fail to deliver a return on investment as the initial process of defining the ‘what’ of the data strategy is not business-led.

Often, data strategies that are led by IT departments focus on the ‘how’ – the technologies required for big data, data cataloguing, data governance, data integration, data lakes and metadata management – without an initial and ongoing investment into understanding ‘what’ data is needed for the strategy to be a success.

Ultimately, there is a mismatch between the execution of data management and what the business actually wants, resulting in various departments disregarding the organisation’s technical data strategy in order to satisfy their data needs. Counterintuitively, this leads to the creation of data silos, a lack of data integrity, multiple versions of the truth and eventually a data strategy that fails.

Instead, what is needed is for the data strategy to align with the business strategy, and for it to be able to evolve in line with changing internal and external environmental factors. This is usually only possible when an organisation’s data and information strategies are led by senior members who understand the business and where it wants to be in the future, and are ardent proponents of using data to continually inform business decisions.

By definition, a data strategy has to have an impact across all levels of the organisation; yet, we see instances where data is available, but is not used to its full potential because the business people don’t know how to use self-service business intelligence (BI) tools to guide decision making. This is a common pitfall of having only the IT department lead data strategies, but it also points to the requirement for data literacy across all levels of the business.

Does this mean that all senior business executives in an organisation should be data scientists? No. On the contrary, all that is needed is for them to be able to use the self-service BI tools and formulate their questions about the business in a way that allows the actual data scientists to manipulate data and get the answers.

One way to get this right is by having a data team that brings together business analysts (who are responsible for various business functions), supported by data scientists and developers who can assist with complex transformations and creating predictive algorithms. Not only does this ensure consistency in an organisation’s data strategy, but it also means that the business’s unique data requirements are met while IT best-practice is also adhered to.

The continent is blessed with a natural abundance of talent and potential, and having data strategies that are driven by a combination of business and IT – with the weighting of efforts allocated differently at various stages of the process – will be key to unleashing this potential. Meanwhile, this combination will also enable organisations to perform data projects that are directly linked to business goals and empower business people to make data-driven decisions on a daily basis – helping drive the competitiveness of businesses in Africa.

It should be noted, however, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be applied in different countries around Africa, especially given that some challenges are unique to the continent. There are also issues such as data sovereignty that need to be carefully considered; it is best that organisations work closely with a partner that has on-the-ground experience as well as a deep understanding of the conditions in different regions across the continent.

Upuli De Abrew is the Director at Insight Consulting


ITPulse is a wholly information technology communication (ICT) news website, with a special focus on the African continent. The website provides up-to-date biz-tech news, analysis and comprehensive and thorough insight into the continent's ICT terrain

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