Understanding what data a business has is key to leveraging the new oil

Data has been described as the ‘new oil’ but are businesses doing enough to leverage this precious resource to grow their top line?

Calling data the ‘new oil’ is arguably a misnomer given the value of data and its economic potential in the long term. As a critical resource it differs from oil quite significantly in that it is not a limited resource but is instead expanding at an exponential rate. At the same time its value increases as more data is made available. In fact, the more data companies collect, analyse and leverage, the more value it can deliver.

Used correctly data has real value to the economy. It has the potential to help society achieve better food security, as one example. However, businesses need to make better use of their data, said Colin Erasmus, Modern Workplace Business Group Lead at Microsoft South Africa during a recent digital conversation about the value of data and how organisations are using it with Michelle Dickens, CEO at TPN Credit Bureau and moderated by Arthur Goldstuck, founder of World Wide Worx.

Each year the amount of available data increases exponentially. Predictions are that by 2025 there will be ten times more data available than there is today, pointed out Erasmus.

The challenge, however, is that many businesses still don’t understand what data they have, how to manage it or how to protect it. For businesses to reap the value of the data in their possession means that they need to understand what data they have, how to classify it and then how to protect it.

There is a growing acknowledgment that data by itself has little value. “Just because there is more data does not make it more powerful,” argued Dickens. “It’s how you use it that determines its value.”

The issue of data protection is being complicated by the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act which companies are required to be compliant with by 1 July 2021. Now that compliance with POPI is less than a month away, many companies are starting to realise just how little they understand about what data they have, where it resides or how to protect it, said Dickens.

Pointing out that compliance is not a single point of time but rather a process, Erasmus said there is a growing demand for software packages that allow businesses to better manage their data. Microsoft recommends an automated process using artificial intelligence to manage data. Artificial intelligence, however, needs to be consistent with ethics. “Artificial intelligence can be for good or for bad which means that when we train machines we need to be very cognisant of how we train them to ensure that artificial intelligence is applied from an ethical standpoint.”

Significant data breaches in recent years have put the spotlight on how to more effectively secure data. “With great power comes super data breaches,” said Goldstuck wryly, alluding to the Liberty email data breach and the Experien data breach as recent examples. The question is, how should companies be protecting themselves from these data breaches?

As data breaches become increasingly more commonplace and sophisticated, companies need to have a data security strategy in place, advised Erasmus. “Security needs to be in three critical areas: people, processes and technology. Tagging data is a good idea to ensure a degree of control.”

Adding that globally there is a move towards zero trust and giving the right people the right access, but only just in time, he pointed out that data has become borderless. “The definition of an employee has changed: they’re no longer necessarily in the office which means that employees working from home even need to check the security on their router.”

Essentially, he said, it all boils down to knowing your data and then protecting it in the most appropriate way.

This is something that TPN, a registered credit bureau which is regulated in terms of the National Credit Act, is keenly aware of. The company analyses consumers’ credit scoring in order to identify individual risk. In addition it assists banks, for example, to ascertain bond affordability and even how much rental income a property can expect to achieve. The ability to collect and analyse data has been key to the success of TPN. The data the company holds, including how long it can retain that information and how it can use that information, is regulated by the National Credit Act.

In an age of a growing number of data breaches, TPN takes data security extremely seriously. “Formerly bad actors are becoming much more sophisticated so it’s vital that businesses work together to safeguard their data,” said Dickens.

Data, correctly utilised, has the potential to be an engine for economic activity. On its own and in isolation, however, it has little value, she said. “It is only when you are able to collect data across industries and sectors and draw comparisons, measure shifts and identify trends that it becomes useful and valuable.”

There is no question that data can provide businesses with a competitive edge, agreed Erasmus. However, at the same time as embracing big data, companies need to make sure they manage their data properly and ethically and put sufficient security features in place given the reality that data breaches are going to continue to become increasingly more sophisticated.

You can watch the full conversation here:

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