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Unlocking the potential of data to transform our world

Prior to COVID-19, digitalisation was already widespread and gaining pace. Rapid developments in technology have been kickstarting innovation across all sorts of sectors for years.

Just think, Tesla has long been infusing technology into all facets of the driving experience, positioning itself as an agent of change within the automotive industry. In the entertainment industry, Netflix is building on the success of its streaming model by scaling up its unique digital culture and exceptional use of technology.

The pandemic has accelerated this trend, leading to a dizzying pace of technological change. Businesses of every stature have been adopting digital solutions years ahead of schedule. Maintaining this momentum is no mean feat – but for those businesses that want to keep pace with this change going forward, engaging with data and analytics is vital.

Data and analytics are the key to transforming our world. It can help to enhance the customer experience, find solutions to intractable global problems, and make better business decisions.

However, this reality requires a fundamental shift in our mindset. Businesses are not universally at the point where they can make the most of data. To do this, they need to better comprehend what data is, understand its role in the economy of the future, and recognise its potential to affect positive change.

Developing a better understanding of data

Although ‘digitalisation’ is the word on everyone’s lips, many businesses and policymakers have only just set out on the journey. So many are yet to have the conversation that runs over how to best manage, process, interpret and work with data.  

With machine learning and artificial intelligence, we are on the brink of a transformative change in our society, similar in scale of what happened when electricity was introduced. Unlocking the potential of data is a vital part of this revolution, making it possible to create better digital journeys for customers which in turn. grows revenue – but businesses will not be able to do this alone.

The UK’s National Data Strategy (NDS) clarifies what a digital Britain will look like, but it also makes the scale of the challenges ahead clear, and highlights where support is needed. At present, there are currently up to 234,000 vacancies for data roles in the UK – finding people with the right skills is difficult. Small and medium-sized businesses are lagging in digital transformation too, and some organisations struggle to balance encouraging innovation and complying with regulation.

Data’s role in building the economy of the future

Eventually, digitalisation will do more than just affect how companies operate on a day-to-day basis; the function of entire economies will change, as we conduct more business through digital computing technologies and internet-based markets.

The pandemic has accelerated this transition too, challenging economies, altering consumer behaviour, and ultimately forcing businesses to adapt the way they work. Changes that previously took years to enact were implemented within days and weeks, particularly when the first national lockdowns were announced.

The explosion in online retail is one such example. In the UK, the sector experienced four years’ growth in the 12 months to July 2021, with its share of total retail spend rising to over 34%. By 2025, Experian estimate that online retail sales will have reached levels not previously expected until 2035 – that is a full decade of digital acceleration.

The benefits of data to society as a whole

While our society’s widespread understanding of data is still warming up, the technology isn’t. Today, we have reached a point where the stars are aligning in terms of dramatic increases in data processing power; artificial intelligence (AI), including machine learning (ML); and a willingness by businesses, organisations and governments to deploy this technological power.

The power of data is already being put to good use, whether that’s through enhancing the customer experience or tackling humanitarian crises. Take the coronavirus pandemic, for example. Data science was instrumental in directing government policy. The now widespread term ‘flattening the curve’ came from the field.

The benefits of unlocking data’s full potential seem almost endless – and I’m not alone in thinking this. As writer, technologist, and author Azeem Azhar notes, we have entered an exponential age. Ours is the first era in human history during which technology is constantly accelerating while the price per unit drops. This presents some extremely exciting possibilities – but it also raises some questions.

For instance, how can businesses prepare themselves? Do they have the necessary data skills in place? Do businesses have the right frameworks to use customer data appropriately? How can businesses build trust with customers? How can regulation enable innovation?

The road ahead

Digital transformation will continue to gain pace. Technology is proving itself to be an essential tool on many fronts, whether that’s tackling the disruption of the pandemic or rethinking how we do business – and many of these changes are here to stay.

Those that are ready for the shift will be best placed to reap the benefits. This means being ready to manage, analyse and understand the huge amounts of data created by our digital society – all in the name of innovating, experimenting, and driving growth.

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