Canadian companies are behind in utilizing Big Data, says new study


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By now, Canadians are probably used to seeing reports telling them how they’re behind in various areas of technology. Whether it’s online presence, Internet services or research and development, Canada is in many ways a veritable technological laggard compared to peer countries. It probably has something to do with how our economy is based on selling all that stuff we find in the ground.

We can add the world of Big Data to that list, according to a new report from IDC. The study, sponsored by North Carolina-based SAS Institute, finds that Canadian businesses aren’t just behind in adopting statistical analytics, they’re also not taking the field seriously enough. This is bad because, just like our trailing in other areas, it represents another competitive disadvantage to other countries.

“Data is a very strategic asset and the things you can do with it can give you a very strategic edge,” says Carl Ferrell, SAS’s executive vice-president for the Americas and president for Canada. “We’re slow in adopting it and we’re not taking it as a strategic asset enough.

Big Data means different things to different people, but Farrell defines it as what happens when the information gathered by a company becomes too big to manage, either because of its volume, variety or complexity. Organizations big and small are gathering an increasing amount of data on customers, but without the ability to interpret and implement it, it’s not useful.

SAS, which sells data analysis systems, naturally has an interest in raising the profile of Big Data, but the bigger repercussions of some companies in one country gaining advantages over others is obvious. In one example, SAS studied transactions of customers and text transcripts from call centres of a financial services provider, then looked at what individuals said about the firm through social media. Those individuals were then cross-referenced with others in the same household, giving SAS statistical probabilities of their leaving the financial institution.

“We identified $2 billion worth of assets across 15,000 households that had a really strong potential of leaving the portfolio,” Farrell says. “Within that, there were multiple characteristics across 3,000 households worth about $200 million where we were basically saying, ‘These guys are definitely going to leave.’”

The results allowed the financial institution to first identify the customers who were most likely to leave, then try to incentivize them to stay through customer service initiatives. Applied to a globalized world, SAS believes such results will be clear.

“When  U.S. retailers come to Canada, they’re going to bring that technology and approach with them,” he says.

The IDC report, being released Tuesday, highlights several problem areas. Other surveys have shown that about two-thirds of international companies have already adopted Big Data management technologies, compared to only 48% in Canada. Even worse, about 15% of respondents here said they have no plans to introduce such technology.

The most worrisome finding to SAS is that corporate decisions in Canada regarding data are being delegated mainly to mid-level IT managers, rather than to C-level executives. In Canada, 25% of companies are doing this, versus only 4% internationally, where a third of companies are seeing data management decisions being made in the C-suite.

“It’s not deemed a strategic problem enough in Canada. Elsewhere, this is a C-level problem,” says Farrell.

So what’s the solution? As with all such matters, some government initiative would help. We’ve been waiting on a federal digital strategy for years now, with Industry Minister Christian Paradis’s latest promise stating that one will be forthcoming by the end of this year. That’s looking very unlikely at this point, but without government leadership or prodding, Canadian companies are probably going to maintain their conservative stances.

SAS’s vice-president of marketing for the Americas, Cameron Dow, says part of the problem also lies in the fact that Canadian universities aren’t graduating nearly enough data scientists, who ultimately will know how to deal with Big Data. The good news there is that a few of them, including Queen’s and York Schulich’s School of Business, have created new courses devoted to the subject.

My feeling is that with a lack of supply and a burgeoning global demand for this sort of thing, Big Data science looks like a great field to get into. Not only does it represent an exciting way to learn how to predict the future, data scientists are going to effectively be able to write their own cheques. If leadership on the issue isn’t going to come from above, it may need to come from below. Tales of students striking it rich by becoming data scientists would probably result in a world of change.

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