Data Culture Soars Across the Middle East and Africa in 2020
The executives in our 2020 Global Top 100 Innovators in Data and Analytics list report surges in data literacy, data maturity and team productivity in the age of COVID-19
The events of 2020 have had a profound impact on organizations across the Middle East and Africa. With business leaders across the region turning to data and analytics to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, data-focused executives are seizing this opportunity to advance their agendas.
As the 10 guests who joined us at this virtual roundtable marking the release of our 2020 Global Top 100 Innovators in Data and Analytics list report, organizations across the region have made great strides in their data and analytics journeys this year.
“I would go as far as saying we’ve delivered more in the pandemic than previous to the pandemic,” quips Richard Wingfield, CDO at Dubai-based conglomerate Al Futtaim. “We changed the way we worked. We became a lot more flexible.”
Surging demand for data-driven insights, a refocusing of business priorities and leaner data team processes have helped these data and analytics leaders drive organizational and cultural change in 2020.
Industry Disruption Fuels Data-Driven Innovation
In the wake of COVID-19, data has consolidated its reputation as a vital decision-making tool. Executives are aware that past experience is not a good guide in these uncertain times and are hungry for reliable, fact-based insights.
Shreya Goswami, CDO, Absa Regional Operations at banking group Absa, says data has been especially important for assessing customer needs and ensuring teams can work remotely productively over the past six months.
“We need to ensure we are still able to support our customers smartly,” she says. “There’s a lot of pressure on data at the moment and we have to live up to it.”
“There was much more appetite to use data,” agrees Dr Mark Nasila, CAO, Chief Risk Office at First National Bank. “We saw new forms of crime come into play. Customers’ needs were changing much more frequently, and to our leaders and stakeholders, data and analytics was helping to provide information around how these [things] were changing.”
“Things are changing every day,” adds Louise Blake, VP: Data at travel group Seera. “It’s very difficult to be able to plan unless you have actually got that responsiveness there for your data.”
She continues: “[Our CEO] now has daily reports coming in and access to dashboards that he’s checking every day.”
Promoting Data Literacy Remains a Priority
Data literacy has always been important. But it’s especially so this year. Faced with increased demand for data and analytics, the focus for many business leaders in the region is shifting from evangelizing about the benefits of being data-driven to making this ambition a reality.
Hartnell Ndungi, CDO at Absa Bank Kenya, explains: “Our helpdesk has received so many [calls] and emails requesting for insights and datapoints and understanding on how to use self-service tools.”
“Executives are now asking, ‘Tell me more about AI’,” he adds. “When I do my presentations to the board team members, they are spending more time and asking me to go a bit deeper.”
However, prioritizing data literacy isn’t purely about meeting rising demand for data. As Youmna Borghol, CDO at media organization Choueiri Group, says, it’s also about changing how a company’s ‘data laggards’ think.
“Essentially, you’re doing a lot of things and you want to make sure everyone understands the value of it,” she says. “We realized along the way that there’s a couple of things that are not utilized in the way that we want them to be.”
“COVID-19 has put quite a different lens on everyone’s focus at the moment,” concludes Maciej Kaliszka, CDO: Corporate and Investment Banking at Absa. “We went from really advocating for [our data university] to stepping back and saying, ‘What are the things that we need to focus on?'”
Greater Flexibility is Boosting Team Productivity
Team productivity is another topic that’s risen to the top of the data and analytics agenda in the Middle East and Africa this year. Faced with the twin challenges of transitioning to remote working and surging demand for their services, data and analytics leaders have been under pressure to ensure they’re delivering projects as efficiently as possible.
“We previously had a culture of working from home at least once a week,” recalls Bart Pietruszka, CDO and Head of Analytics at HSBC. “But I guess moving to the permanent solution accelerated this ‘working from home’ concept by at least a decade.”
In fact, the shift to remote working has proved to be great for team productivity in many organizations. Pietruszka says HSBC has achieved good results by setting staff output targets and then giving them the freedom and flexibility to decide how they’ll achieve them.
On the other hand, Maritza Curry, Head of Data at financial services company RCS, credits having a clear mandate for project prioritization from the executive team with helping her team keep up with demand.
“The opportunity that COVID-19 and lockdown gave us was to focus the efforts and attention of the analytics community on answering very specific questions,” she says.
“We didn’t have to go through any longwinded process for prioritizing demand,” she adds. “Because we were given very clear boundaries in terms of the questions that we should be answering, we could do the prioritization on our own.”
It remains to be seen whether enterprises that have accelerated their data programs in these unprecedented times will retain these data-driven practices after the pandemic is over. But it seems likely that many organizations will look back on 2020 as a watershed year for their data cultures.
The advances we’ve seen in demand for data, data literacy and data team productivity this year look set to shape the business agenda across the Middle East and Africa for years to come.