Technologies that data, such as AI and the Internet of Things, have been gaining popularity in recent times.
Technologies that data, such as AI and the Internet of Things, have been gaining popularity in recent times.

How culture hacking is paving the road to data-based competitiveness

Dubai - Being 'data-driven' will mean something different to each organisation, but with fact-finding in hand, visions and missions can be amended accordingly

By Joanne Fischlin

Published: Wed 31 Mar 2021, 4:19 PM

Last updated: Wed 31 Mar 2021, 4:21 PM

Across the Middle East and Africa, organisations of all scales and types were confronted with a stark choice in 2020: Adapt or fade away. Some, sadly, did not make it. But those that did certainly made expansive use of a range of technologies to do so. Cloud infrastructure and collaboration tools allowed operational continuity through remote working and distance learning. But other more ambitious and innovative enterprises saw a chance to not just survive but thrive.

Data was their friend. It opened the way to new customer experiences and new business models. This is not a fresh phenomenon to the UAE. Business stakeholders here know that data is an indispensable ally. Technologies that leverage it, such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, have been gaining popularity in recent times. Microsoft and Ernst & Young’s 2019 Artificial Intelligence in the Middle East and Africa report showed that UAE-based organisations had signed 160 deals worth $2.15 billion between 2008 and 2018 to make more effective use of data.

The theory behind data leverage is simple. Human decision-makers are shackled by memes, norms and agendas, and therefore cannot consistently make good decisions. Data frees them and paves the way to knowledge-based action. However, in the real world, the shackles may be proving tough to break. According to Gartner, data is rarely the origin of major decisions, even among those who have invested in technologies designed to harness it. The research firm’s answer to this is an approach it calls “culture hacking”.

To use data the way it was meant to be used — as a decision engine inseparable from human deliberation — business stakeholders need to initiate surveys and hold focus groups and employee interviews to determine the state of play as it relates to data and decision making. Being “data-driven” will mean something different to each organisation, but with the fact-finding in hand, visions and mission statements can be amended accordingly. From there, an enterprise can re-evaluate what its USPs are and how it brings value to its operating market.

Finding small ways of changing that allow momentum to build into an unstoppable force is the chief goal in culture hacking. It is the quick, easy, and out-in-the-open wins that will convince employees that change is worth doing and sustainable. Make sure to include data templates in all internal communications and continually highlight data as the way to greatness. As with actions, communication should be bite-sized, to ensure maximum understanding and retention by everyone. And when the wins become wins, let people know; and make sure they are made aware that data was the champion.

Of course, it is still equally important to build an understanding among those using and collecting data that this information needs to be handled, stored, and evaluated with care and data protection in mind. In the UAE, we are seeing considerable efforts made to provide better data protection, as well as providing guardrails to the adoption of technology. The Minister of AI and the Minister of Tolerance have sent a clear message that the adoption of AI needs to be human-centred and responsible, to augment human capabilities.

Despite all efforts, the fear factor may remain strong. It is only natural to feel anxious about moving into new areas. Some may feel they lack the skills. Others may feel the threat of displacement. Feelings such as these can be dispelled by inclusion in the change process, and through upskilling and reskilling.

Culture change may seem onerous, but like any other journey, it starts with a single step. Followed by another. And then another. Make the steps small enough and your colleagues will not notice the steepness of the mountain. And at the summit? Competitiveness, as never before.

The writer is head of corporate, external and legal affairs at Microsoft. Views expressed are her own and do not reflect the publication's policy.

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