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Africa’s entry into Big Data and analytics

Africa’s entry into Big Data and analytics

(Left to right) George Etheredge is Research Analyst for Digital Transformation Practice at Frost & Sullivan Africa; Henrique Do Vale, Africa and Middle East Leader for Applications and Analytics, Global Business Center at Nokia; Monzer Tohme is Regional Vice President Sales, Africa and Middle East at Epicor; and Jane Thomson is Managing Director at Softworx.

The African market is witnessing a maturation of data analytics into an independent, intuitive technology. It is becoming integral to the way people work, moving away from the predominant use by only a select few, towards a tool that is utilised across the entire organisation. According to Jane Thomson, Managing Director at Softworx, in 2017, a greater embedding of analytics is expected, integrating its value into the rest of the enterprise applications, instead of running it as a separate function.

Jane continues, “This embedding will be fostered with increased movement to the cloud, as organisations that have not yet invested in data analytics infrastructure can now do so without incurring the traditional start-up costs.” Softworx was first set up in 1995, and since then has progressed to become global ERP vendor Infor’s Gold Channel Partner and Master Partner operating in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With the cloud, the need for capital expenditure is eliminated, as smaller monthly fees ease the pressure on the balance sheet. Although cloud is an excellent solution, which has matured in some African sectors, its application in data analytics is still fairly new. For those African organisations that are not ready for a full cloud transition, or do not want to lose the capital investment already made, hybrid cloud offers the perfect solution.

Over the last five years, data analytics processes have greatly evolved. The processes themselves have gone from clunky and non-intuitive tools, driven only by the IT department, to a truly modern era of self-service. This self-service approach to data analytics is starting to bear fruit. It does, however, come with some challenges. Often, IT wants to remain in charge of analytics in order to govern the outcomes, but this usually causes bottlenecks and frustrates the goal of instant insights.

For data analytics, truly to be part of the work, it must be made available to the entire business. To this end, tools are becoming available to greater parts of the enterprise. This results in more discussion about the data itself, not only the analytical tools, both around the boardroom, and the water-cooler. Data is the source, it is the element that is most important.

As the basic islands of tools controlled by IT are phased out, the new generation toolsets are more intuitive and flexible, easier to use and offer faster results. Of course, the role of the IT department is still fundamental, particularly with regards to ensuring that the raw data is secure, properly stored and accessible.

Reports to analytics

Historically, enterprises in the region have relied on reporting tools as the basis for taking business decisions. These tools assess historical data and produce summaries in standard views and standard formats. The next phase was to move reporting summaries into dashboards using graphical colored tools to highlight alerts, trends, summaries for business. Another historical trend, a decade ago, was for enterprises in all industries, to roll in a financial accounting package as a one-stop solution for all business requirements.

With the arrival of cloud technologies and the increasingly larger scale of data aggregations, the requirements of end-users are changing. Going through standard reports and legacy tools is no longer an option for regional enterprise end-users, believes Monzer Tohme is Regional Vice President Sales, Africa and Middle East at Epicor. End users want dashboards that give them an instant view of their company position from all different angles. From collection to sales, to product performance, per region, per sales person. They need that sort of analysis on the spot, and at any time. This is where mobility now plays a big part in making data analytics available.

According to Tohme, discussions on the benefits of ERP have now moved to the second position. “In my interactions here in the region, with our existing customers and even with potential prospects and potential customers, business intelligence and analytics is definitely a key discussion. It comes even before drilling down to the ERP product.”

While business intelligence tools have been built horizontally across the Epicor ERP suite, Epicor has added its latest overlay of analytical tools as well. “In parallel, we have built a new tool called Epicor Data Analytics, which again sits on top of the ERP. It is a full cloud solution that provides an end-to-end analysis of the business. Today our new tool is only available on the cloud, because we believe the way forward is cloud, and this has been acknowledged by all vendors as well as customers. Although, this region is maybe slightly behind on cloud adoption, but it is moving forward with this direction,” elaborates Tohme.

The difference between generating reports from historical data and using Epicor’s Data Analytics is the ability to generate predictive analytics based on historical data. The longer the baseline of historical data, the more accurate will be the predictive forecasts. “It is not just a view of history. It will give you as well some sort of, I would say forecast, some intelligence on how the business will move forward. We read the historical data, we see the trends how it was moving, and then we can, based on this data give you a prediction for the coming years. You can as a manager change the view, adjust it and make the proper decision,” explains Tohme.

Cloud-based Epicor Data Analytics is also well positioned to meet growing demands from the use-cases of Internet of Things. Historically, administrators would plug in assumed values of machine performance either through legacy experience or otherwise into the ERP workflow variables. Now with connected sensors and devices sitting on the same shop-floor, sending their real-time data directly into Epicor ERP through cloud based databases, Epicor Data Analytics can give a real-time picture to administrators for assessing actual production parametres and productivity.

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Managing data overflow

A recent study conducted by the South African Facilities Management Association revealed that the industry has grown aggressively from merely being associated with building maintenance. For an industry that collectively manages billions of dollars across South Africa, the right skills and technology are essential to drive facilities management forward. The study also revealed that clients want technology to be used in facilities management. To fulfil these needs, a focus on modernisation is critical.

According to Barry Diedericks, Infor EAM Subject Matter Expert at Softworx, the Internet of Things offers this, but sometimes there is too much information. “A perfect storm describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically,” adds Diedericks. “In facilities management, for example, a smart building offers unlimited data, but do we need this data. As technology advances, the complexity involved in gathering and analysing data exponentially increases.”

This has business owners begging the question: if you bring me a report, and I cannot use it in my business, why do I need it? Diedericks believes that information comes at a cost, but this is justified if the data can be leveraged to transform building services. If you can operate your business with insight, it becomes possible to take decisions more intelligently. This can be achieved in two ways. By asking the right questions and collecting the right data, and by implementing the right tools to analyse the data collected.

Technology comes with its challenges, and IoT is no exception. “Perhaps the biggest challenge is its efficiency, the ability to capture millions of transactions per second. Can all of this data be stored?” asks Diedericks. In some industries, it is vital to have this constant information at hand. In healthcare, for example, devices must constantly be monitored. In the food industry, however, checking can be done intermittently, perhaps every few minutes. At home, however, this information would only be required every few hours.

Use cases

According to George Etheredge, Research Analyst for Digital Transformation Practice at Frost & Sullivan Africa, when talking about Big Data, there is a very real risk of getting caught up in the hype. Big Data, in the end, is just data, gargantuan amounts of data. Technological advances certainly have played a role in enabling collection and generation of more and more data but, as was always the case, data on its own is not valuable.

What is valuable, however, are the insights that can be drawn from this data after suitable analysis has been conducted. Here again, technology has helped by increasing the amount of data that can be processed at a reasonable speed. “As such, the use-cases of Big Data in Africa then are the same as the use-cases for data in Africa, in general. Given the extent of poverty and disease on the continent, two key uses would be in infection and crop monitoring,” says Etheredge.

Retail and financial services appear to be industries most active in adopting Big Data, and made use of data before Big Data was coined. Enforcement of legislation, such as Protection of Personal Information Act, however will be a factor to watch in how Big Data is further developed for commercial purposes.

New demands from consumers and businesses are putting pressure on communications service providers to improve customer experience by delivering new timely, attractive and differentiated products and services. At the same time, they must work to reduce costs and create new business models and revenue opportunities allowing them to compete effectively in the digital era.

According to Henrique Do Vale, Africa and Middle East Leader for Applications and Analytics, Global Business Center at Nokia, the vendor is providing software solutions and services to help its customers transition from being communications service providers to digital service providers.

Communication service providers in Africa are increasingly interested in deploying Big Data and analytics solutions for several key reasons. These include the need to: reduce operational expenditures, create new business models and new revenue streams, and improve customer experience. “With the amounts of data being consumed by subscribers and generated by service providers today, Big Data and analytics are not a luxury but a necessity. Storing, processing and understanding all that data, turning it into meaningful information and improving business with it, is what various platforms and solutions bring to the table for service providers,” says Do Vale.

Analytics solutions are a major differentiator, giving service providers insight into network and subscriber information. This enables them to streamline operations and increase efficiencies by bringing in new levels of intelligence and automation. Analytics also open up new opportunities for service providers to monetise the massive amounts data they are collecting.

As an example, Nokia’s Cognitive Analytics can provide rich views of mobile, fixed and IP networks, bringing efficiencies to service providers. It provides multi-dimensional view of subscribers to ensure a clear view of customer experience, with predictive and automated capabilities in customer care and customer insight. Monetisation through new channels also comes into play with the ability to see crowd movements in cognitive analytics and to apply that information to retail, transportation, out of home media, travel and tourism applications.

 

The Cognitive Analytics suite is powered by Nokia Bell Labs’ machine learning algorithms, which enables software to increase accuracy over time. (Courtesy Nokia)

 

Inhibitors

An important driver for Big Data in Africa is improvements in Internet connectivity. Most high intensity data projects make use of a cloud based component and this naturally requires a connection to the cloud provider. On the other side of the same coin, connectivity in Africa is still by no means up to the global standards seen in more developed markets and this acts as a restraint to the full realisation of Big Data’s benefits.

Another important restraint is a lack of skills. “A worthwhile data project will require both the technical skills to manage and analyse the data, as well as the strategic skills to draw meaningful conclusions from the analysis,” says Etheredge.

Nokia’s Do Vale explains that, a key inhibitor is the cost and effort sometimes required to deploy new analytics capabilities. There are different approaches to deploying analytics solutions, some of which require large investment and significant effort to upgrade existing network infrastructure. In addition, some service providers lack the in-house resources and expertise often required to monitor and interpret the massive amounts of analytics data.

Another inhibitor is that it can be quite difficult to decide where to begin with analytics deployments. There are so many areas that can benefit from analytics, that service providers can be at a loss as to where they can benefit from analytics most in the short and long term.

“Nokia addresses these issues by offering communication service providers the best bang for the buck solutions that delivers appropriate level of analytics intelligence to meet key business and operational needs, without requiring major infrastructure upgrades. Nokia analytics products are designed to be intuitive and easy-to-use so customers do not require in-house data scientists to make sense of the analytics data,” says Nokia’s Do Vale.

Similar to any business transformation project, implementing a project around Epicor Data Analytics requires skilled resources with a good understanding of the industry. While cloud may have removed most of the technology challenges of requiring a technology infrastructure to be in place, there are still challenges during the implementation. “You are addressing a business challenge, not just a product challenge and your resources need to be aware of that business. You need to have qualified senior resources to drive such an engagement,” says Tohme.

End-user enterprise organisations from South Africa, UAE and Saudi Arabia fall into a tier-one slab in terms of their IT maturity. “Customers from these regions and definitely vendors are very well matured. The customers have specified budgets. They have very specific requirements. They know what they want to achieve. They have defined projects, defined budgets, defined timelines and typically the resources they have are senior and mature,” continues Tohme.

Rest of the countries from Africa and Middle East fall into a tier-two slab. In this slab, large enterprise organisations do have large IT teams to drive technology implementations. But for medium sized enterprise organisations, the IT teams are invariably a single-person show. While they may have significant IT procurement budgets, success of a project is largely driven by the skilled resources of the vendor and the implementation partners. “This is where the vendor plays a major role in making sure the project is a success,” reflects Tohme.