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Win the battle for relevance in the Digital Economy...or face extinction: Stephen Brobst in Malaysia

AvantiKumar | May 17, 2017
'Technology is the easy part; the challenge is to turn data into products,' big data evangelist and Teradata's global CTO Stephen Brobst speaks of the urgent need to change mind-sets and speed up the development of true data scientists

Teradata media briefing - 16 May 2017

Photo (Computerworld Malaysia) - (From left) Saqib Sabah, Country Manager of Teradata Malaysia; and Stephen Brobst , CTO of Teradata talk to media in Kuala Lumpur (16 May 2017)


  The digital economy is forcing companies to become relevant or to face extinction depending on how they perceive and manage data, according to many industry players.

Just before catching up this morning (16 May 2017) in Kuala Lumpur with two top executives from one data specialist US-headquartered Teradata Corporation - big data evangelist and global chief technology officer Stephen Brobst and Malaysia country manager Saqib Sabah - I recalled some of company's major activities in Malaysia through the last three years.

These initiatives are underpinned with an almost evangelical passion for transformation at both commercial and governmental levels.

Some of these are collaborations, which we will briefly revisit later, are with national agency Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) and various local universities.

So what are the real challenges behind transformation? "Technology is actually the easy part; the real challenge is to turn data into products," said Brobst. "In this century, in the digital economy, companies are already data companies, or will become data companies or will cease to be relevant."

Both Sabah and Brobst spoke with a sense of urgency about the following keys for digital transformation in Malaysia: nurture true data scientists and transform organisational culture.

These will result in successfully monetising - or deriving value - from data, they said.

'Turn data into products'

Brobst outlined the shift of "most valuable asset from natural resources to data in the 21st century."

"The top companies in the world have become data platforms," he said, adding that advanced analytics formed the core of turning real-time data into intelligence.

In talking of turning data into products, Brobst spoke of two forms of intelligence: "Business intelligence (BI) and customer intelligence (CI). BI is providing information to business decision makers. Customer intelligence is providing information directly to customers for personal decision making."

Brobst talked through an example of an electrical manufacturer turning its electric toothbrushes into IoT devices. "Data of customers' brushing habits became CI: a scorecard of customer behaviours can be viewed on an iPad (Philips has thereby becomes a data company). Meanwhile, the BI aspect allows loyalty rewards, perhaps given in tokens, by insurance companies and health companies. A manufacturing company is now a data company."

Among other examples, he cited Amazon's recommendations data intelligence helps to drive up to 30 percent of their sales. Netflix's shows recommendations element account for 75 percent of viewings. Also using analytics, LinkedIn draws 50 percent of new members from the recommendations segment.

"Advanced analytics is the core," Brobst said. "It is about understanding stories - meaningful patterns - from real time data on a single view of the individual.

A final example: Californian power utility SCE (Southern California Edison) spent US$1.6 billion to replace 5 million meters with smart meters  to help manage power in real time. This was achieved using BI to manage pricing to encourage power usage during peak times.

"The CI aspect enables access to your own data using an iPad to see consumption of energy over time," he said. "In California, customers gain incentives when using solar panels. By making the consumer smarter and helping them to make better decisions, means that all stakeholders win. This includes the Federal government's intention of reducing dependency on foreign oil. In the new world, the utility's job is to deliver data. In the old world, it was to just deliver power."

"Business driven innovation not technology driven is very important," said Brobst, adding that Teradata's Sentient enterprise approach included a five stage transformation journey.

Collaborations with MDEC: What makes a data scientist?

Speaking to Computerworld Malaysia just before today's event, Sabah outlined some of the company's activities during the last couple of years. We recalled that in May 2016, we saw Brobst in Kuala Lumpur then pointing to the necessity of "hard sciences and a culture that really developed big data analytics talent."
[See - A grain of sand, the space to fail: Teradata on building a powerful BDA hub in Malaysia]

"Data scientists need to have a scientific skillset, which includes creative thinking ability coupled with innate curiosity and the right talent does not necessarily have to come from an IT background," said Brobst at that time.

When asked about the 'right culture,' he said that "a strong big data analytics (BDA) culture is one that celebrates failure as being a key part of the path to successfully generating real value from analytics."

In August last year,  Sabah and Brobst said Teradata's Think Big company had offered consulting services to help address the talent requirements needed to build a regional big data analytics (BDA) hub.
[See - Think Big can address Malaysia's big data talent shortage, Teradata says]

"Since becoming part of Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC)'s National Big Data Analytics (BDA) Innovation Network, Teradata has been working closely with MDEC to drive BDA adoption in Malaysia and develop high impact BDA projects," Sabah told Computerworld Malaysia.

Teradata is also part of MDeC's National Big Data Analytics Innovation Network - working to accelerate big data analytics adoption in Malaysia.

"STEM (science, technology engineering, and mathematics) should be STEAM: add the Art into the course," said Brobst.

Speaking to media later, he added that the ideal data scientist required a balance of technical and creative thinking to understand the patterns within data. "An ideal data scientist needs six things: curiosity; intuition; data gatherings; statistics; analytic modelling; and communication!"

"Curiosity is a personality trait and not something that can be trained," he added. "A data scientist is someone not afraid of technology but doesn't need to be a programmer. Communication is the ability to data storytelling,"

"To get all six things in one person is very difficult," admitted Brobst. "You need to accept some trade-offs. Also, I favour having diverse big data teams rather than one or individual. You need as much diversity as possible to be able to challenge and think differently."

Progress check

So as Malaysia approaches the middle of 2017, what progress does has been made since Brobst's last visit?

In August 2015, Brobst's message in Malaysia also included the government's role of sharing information and coordinating programmes within and across agencies to produce actionable intelligence.

He pointed to the benefits of open data initiatives, which underpinned the importance of having in place a big data strategy that has the citizen as its focus as well as one that effectively harnesses the benefits of open data. [Teradata Malaysia worked on a project to tackle dengue using data.]

He said the business of government included wide-ranging functions such as social services, taxation, and healthcare, which involved multiple platforms and techniques.

"A multi-channel strategy will help government agencies deliver interactions that are connected and accurate to help citizens make better decisions, be it regarding healthcare, banking, insurance or even government services," said Brobst, who was a former member of the President's Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) under Barack Obama.

"With higher levels of data integration and quality, agencies will be able to apply more sophisticated analytics to optimise their finance operations; to identify fraud and waste; and to improve financial and award reporting," he said.

Today's message from Brobst and Sabah celebrated much progress in Malaysia especially in developing data scientists. But more needs to be done. "MDEC and the universities have ramped up theirs efforts. But more industry players need to help, especially as they will benefit from the new talent."

Sabah said, "Malaysia is seeing discussions on organisational culture and transformation at the senior executive level but there needs to be more urgency." Local sectors showing some signs of culture change include banks, telecommunications and government.

"Culture change is the difficult thing," Brobst added. "New world models need to happen and permeate through the different sectors. You have to find a champion within the business and take transformation in steps."

"We need more talent in Malaysia as these are being snapped up rapidly," he said. "MDEC and local universities are making the right moves but industry players need to ramp up collaboration, especially as they will then benefit from the new BDA talent."

The latest edition of this article lives at Computerworld Malaysia.


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