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Netflix’s House of Cards may be among the 75 per cent of shows people see because it was recommended by algorithms. Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Clair Underwood. (Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix) Netflix’s House of Cards may be among the 75 per cent of shows people see because it was recommended by algorithms. Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Clair Underwood. (Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix) Netflix’s House of Cards may be among the 75 per cent of shows people see because it was recommended by algorithms. Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Clair Underwood. (Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix)

The New Executive

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The Globe and Mail

Published Wednesday, Apr. 06, 2016 5:00AM EDT

Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 06, 2016 4:31PM EDT

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A look at what skills future business leaders need to have to tackle the challenges of an ever-shifting marketplace.

A bridge that tells people if it has been damaged, a revenue-sharing model for mall tenants and customized suggestions resulting in surging sales – these are just a few examples of how organizations are using technology to stay at the competitive forefront.

But as the charge into the future of so-called big data picks up steam, the first thing that executives might want to consider is to stop calling it big data.

“At some point we’re … just going to move it back into the realm of insights,” says Stephen Gardiner, managing director, digital, for consulting company Accenture in Toronto. “The reasons for that are many but mostly … it’s not a new space and it has become the norm for many of our clients.”

For executives looking to harness the power of big data, analytics and the Internet of Things, though, it isn’t so much a choice as a necessity in today’s business world. Change is a daily constant, and the only question is whether companies want to ride the crest of that adaptive wave or fall behind.

With 75 per cent of the S&P Fortune 500 companies predicted to be displaced in the next 10 years, staying ahead of the game is more important than ever.

“There used to be a quote about companies that were built to last,” says Olaf Krahmer, vice-president of enterprise and architectures for Cisco Systems Canada Co. in Toronto. “It’s no longer about built to last; I would say it’s about built to change. How do you change, how do you adapt to the changing requirements and how do you leverage technology to do so?”

Importance of strategy

One of the most critical first steps is to form a comprehensive data strategy, says Janet Kennedy, president of Microsoft Canada Co. The strategy should encompass exactly how a company can combine all its data and extract insights.

An Accenture report published last year in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that high-performing companies are nearly twice as likely as their low-performing counterparts to use analytics to make better and more informed decisions. In addition, they allocate more of their technology investment to analytics and are almost four times as likely to receive a significant return on investment.

“If you’re a company in Canada and you want to take your business global, you need to have a digital strategy,” says Ms. Kennedy. “Not only to figure out how to reach outside of Canada to export your goods, but also to have that listening mechanism so you understand what people are saying about your brand.”

Gathering and understanding massive amounts of data is not always straightforward. Ms. Kennedy uses the example of Canada’s Tangerine Bank, which turned to Microsoft when its data warehouse, which was full of customer financial information as well as customer feedback and complaints and social media interactions, looked like it would not be able to handle an expected 50-per-cent growth in data in the next five years. Plus, it took a full day from the time an analysis request was submitted to the time the business intelligence group delivered a report. In the real-time world that businesses now operate in, that was far too slow.

Companies find it is becoming critical to handle massive amounts of data. International Data Corp. issued a report in 2014 that looked at how worldwide leaders and businesses using big data are going to add to their bottom line.

“They had a statement they released recently that said there’s $1.6-trillion more in business value for those [companies] that are leaders in data than [those that] lag,” says Ms. Kennedy. “That’s a big number.”

Putting it into practice

When IBM surveyed about 800 chief executive officers from across the world, they consistently said that technology is the most important external influence on enterprise, says Caroline Ong, partner and analytics leader for global business services at IBM Canada Ltd. in Vancouver.

Torchbearer CEOs – the ones whose companies are market leaders – look at partnering with technology companies for research and insight, and have a mindset of rapid experimentation as a barrage of new technologies emerge to help them get to the market faster, she said.

For executives looking to follow in their footsteps, Ms. Ong recommends three things. The first is to look at data in a broader fashion. So while the company may have internal data, looking at external and unstructured data such as social data, the Internet of Things, sensor data, weather data, etc., will help form a broader picture of the situation.

Ms. Ong’s second recommendation is to make connections between the different sources of data using advanced analytics and cognitive methods to determine patterns and give the company insights it can act on.

The third is to use data to channel innovation within a company.

At the end of the day, she says, things haven’t changed in terms of the goals and challenges that companies have: Finding and attracting more customers, retaining the ones they have and selling them more products.

“The goals are the same, but the methods continue to evolve and improve,” Ms. Ong says. “The newest and latest technologies – whether it’s cognitive, using mobile applications, using predicative analytics and using [Internet of Things] – gives them that leading edge over the late adopters.”

Real-world examples

Analytics and data drive some of the most common, everyday things that we do. For example, 75 per cent of the things people watch on Netflix come from the website’s recommendation engine, while the same thing accounts for 35 per cent of sales on Amazon.

“That’s a case of people saying they like choice, but in reality the choice is overwhelming and these predictive capabilities, driven largely by data insights and trial and error, allow for a much more reasonable and manageable number of choices for the consumer,” says Sami Ahmed, senior manager, digital, for Accenture in Toronto.

Mr. Krahmer, who formerly oversaw 42 countries for Cisco in Africa, uses the example of the Citystars Heliopolis mall in Cairo, Egypt. The mall owners used technology to offer two rental models for their tenants. The first was the traditional one, where the tenants pay rent on a monthly basis, while the second scales down the rent considerably at the price of sharing some revenue with the landlords.

“They made the second model so compelling for the tenants that most of the tenants went for that,” he says. They were able to do this because all the billing went through the owners so they knew how much revenue was driven by which store. The data generated also allows the mall owners to know where to put stores based on who is buying what and where, and it permits them to make advertising far more targeted because they know in real time the types of products that are selling.

Other examples would be the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which relies on technology by Cisco to ensure that following an earthquake the bridge is safe to be used as quickly as possible. Previously it was up to engineers scrambling across the bridge to assess any structural damage. But since sensors were placed on the bridge that measure how much the bridge shook during a quake, a combination of the Internet of Things and big data allow authorities to make a faster determination of whether to open the bridge for traffic.

That combination is only set to play a bigger role in the coming years.

“Data is becoming the next key strategic area,” Ms. Kennedy says. “There’s data that came out [last month] that at the end of 2017 there will be about five billion connected devices, and they’re estimating it to be 25 billion devices by 2020.”

Editor's note: Tangerine Bank turned to Microsoft, rather than Cisco, for help with its data. This is the corrected version of the article.

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