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The fabric of business information

The fabric of business information

Seemingly every organisation wants to use data to drive business, but it has been a complex task demanding significant time and money. However, that is changing thanks to new tools.

Muhammad Zeeshan Khan, chief technology officer of the Microsoft services division at TEKenable.

Anyone who reads the technology press will have the impression that data is the universal solvent for business, lurking behind every customer and business decision and driving sales to happy consumers. The reality, however, is more mundane: data analytics can do a lot for business, but it is bedevilled by legacy technologies, siloing of information and a shortage of crucial skills.

Muhammad Zeeshan Khan, chief technology officer of the Microsoft services division at TEKenable, said Irish businesses were working more with data, but that there remained a lag.

“They are starting from a low baseline, but it’s increasingly a thing they’re trying to adopt,” he said, pointing to a Central Statistics Office Information Society study from 2021 indicating the number of businesses relying on data has increased.

There is significant variation by industry, however, with some sectors leading the integration of data into operations.

“In the retail sector, they are very good at data. Inventory optimisation and management saw them become first-movers and some of the most sophisticated ones are doing personalised marketing,” he said.

Financial services is also a major user of data for fraud detection and, increasingly, risk assessment. For its part Irish manufacturing, Khan said, tended toward the high-tech and value-added and was using data gleaned from internet of things (IoT) devices, while the logistics sector was using telemetry.

TEKenable, which has done significant work in the area, has also seen growth of data being used for healthcare tasks, from patient management to treatment itself.

“I think the health sector is improving, based on the work we come across. They realise they are collecting a lot of data, but they have silos and that needs to change,” Khan said.

One question is how to go about integrating data into their work. From this, further questions arise, such as what is the reason we are doing this’, and ‘does it require the hiring of data scientists’?

“I think it depends on the size of the organisation. It’s not universal,” Khan said.

“A large organisation producing a massive dataset, such as an e-commerce platform or social media organisation, benefits from a real data science team. Upskilling is challenging because you have to learn, as is implied in the name, a lot of skills, such as around statistical analysis.”

Start-ups and SMEs typically don’t produce as much data and so don’t require data scientists, he said, but they can outsource for specific use cases.

For businesses that do lean heavily on data, however, a new product has just made their lives easier: Microsoft Fabric.

Fabric is an all-in-one analytics solution, Khan said, that organisations can use to revolutionise the integration of data into operations.

“It’s an evolution of a number of Microsoft data tools that have been evolving over the last 20 years. You can think of it as a comprehensive data platform designed for this age of AI. What I can do in Fabric, I could have done last year, but it would have required a lot more skills and it would have been a lot more expensive,” he said.

Using Fabric, organisations can bring together the data they need and transform it into what they need to know, such as year-on-year sales, quarter-on-quarter sales, regional sales, sales by customer and so on.

Hitherto, such aggregation and transformation required significant effort and the use of a lot of tools, such as an SQL Server database and a data warehouse with an extract, transform and load (ETL) process in the middle, not to mention some means for dealing with legacy systems and data silos.

In response to this complexity, Khan said, Microsoft has taken all of its tools and put them behind a “single pane of glass”.

“It’s safe and secure and instead of pricing about 20 different things to get it up and running it has a single price and runs in a browser application,” he said.

“What they have done is created a unified experience. You can create four or five ‘user experiences’ and you can get [the data you need] in the browser, but also see all of the other data that your colleagues see.

“It democratises access to data so you can use it on your desktop to report in Excel or in the cloud, or use data science to enrich data coming from other sources.”

The above text was reproduced from the interview published in Business Post on March 8th, 2024.

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