“Data is the closest thing to magic in the modern world…”

This is a English translation of an article by Thérèse van Bellinghen that first appeared on the SAP News Blog

Yves Lombaerts, Sales Manager for the Belgian market, picked up our Global Innovation Evangelist Timo Elliott for an interesting ride to SAP’s offices in Brussels. They discussed how medium and small sized enterprises should handle the digital transformation, and the concrete roles of Data Protection Officers and Innovation Evangelists during this process. “We already reached the tipping point where everyone realizes that cloud is the future for their IT-systems”, says Timo Elliott.

Yves: The term “Evangelist” is used a lot nowadays. What is your concrete role at SAP?

Timo: I know the title can seem a bit strange (laughs). But basically, it means that I work with organizations on leading-edge innovations, gather the lessons learned and then share that knowledge with as many people as possible, so that we can all be more successful.

Yves: When you look at Belgium in particular, do you notice some differences between our market and other countries?

Timo: I love coming to Belgium, I always notice several great innovation projects here. I think Belgium punches above its weight when it comes to innovation, compared to larger markets. And I like to think that part of that is because Belgians are used to being exposed to other points of views and other cultures. It’s very hard to be an insular Belgian, you guys are really immersed in international trends.

Yves: Belgium also has a lot of mid-sized companies. We see that they don’t always have the budget to invest heavily in innovation. What would be your advice for them?

Timo: The good news is that we live at the start of a golden age for medium and small businesses. You no longer need to be a big company to have a big vision, thanks to cloud technology. A ten person-organization can now access the same computer power as big companies. So small organizations can now do things that were previously impossible.

Yves: Will business process intelligence become more important for them?

Timo: There are many opportunities for organizations to innovate. One of the biggest questions organizations face is actually: where on earth do we start? One new area indeed is business process intelligence. For example, I have a knee injury at this moment, and my doctor said that I had to have an MRI scan.—because she needed to see exactly what’s going on. We can’t fix things until we know what’s happening—and that’s what business process intelligence is all about. It shines a light into an end-to-end business process across different applications and systems and finds out where the blockage is. Once you find out what the problem is, you can really do something about  it. And in the future, that part will consist of just clicking a button and then automatically seeing a new subpart of the business process in the cloud. That’s fantastic and it offers a lot of opportunities for PME’s.

Yves: Do you think people are already fully convinced about the real added value of digital transformation?

Timo: Yes. I work with lots of organizations doing amazing things. Honestly, data is the closest thing to magic in the modern world. You can create something out of nothing. You can use data to improve customer outcomes and cut costs and even make the world a better place at the same time. Companies realize these are win-win-win opportunities. And all of that is easier to do so with the latest generations of technology.

Yves: Some companies also put a Chief Data Officer in place. What is their added value?

Timo: There has indeed been a huge rise of CDO’s. What their exact title is and where they report in the organization is less important than their underlying role, which is to leverage data holistically as an asset for the organization. These roles are driving the foundation of the business processes of the future.

A lot of organizations have spent hundreds of thousands or even millions of euros investing in systems for gathering data, but they are probably not getting all the return they should have. Because all that info is sorted in data silos. So, the Chief Data Officer is in fact just someone in your organization who keeps that holistic view, whose job is to insert those data into your future business model.

Yves: You travel a lot, you meet a lot of people and companies…

Timo: There’s not a lot of travelling these days (laughs). But I’m still talking to a lot of people on Zoom.

Yves: And which current project do you find most interesting?

Timo: A very interesting project here in Belgium is the one at Farys. The company keeps an eye on the water quality in Belgium’s regions. I got to talk to their CIO, Inge Opreel, and she’s putting together a great smart water platform. It was already possible for them to monitor where they were losing water in their pipes. But now they can also see why they are losing it. For example, it could be due to a leakage, but it could also be that there are firefighters trying to save a burning building and are therefore using lots of water. That’s a great example of what a lot of organizations are trying to do now: they are not only trying to gather more data, but they are also trying to leverage it more. They need to really understand what’s going on.

Yves: I have the feeling that a lot of companies think that they can use their data to their benefit by hiring a data scientist. But that that’s just not enough, they first need to centralize their data?

Timo: I’m a big believer in data scientists, but they’re very expensive. And unfortunately, according to analyst firms like Gartner, digital transformation projects fail in 85% of the cases. That’s an awful waste of resources.

Yves: Why are all those projects failing?

Timo: I see two main reasons. The first one is: companies should invest more in improving their data quality before doing anything else. You must master your metadata and make sure that everything is lined up. To make a big step forward with data science, you first need to do that painful work. Once you’ve done that and when you have large amounts of high-quality data, data science projects and machine learning can be implemented relatively quickly and easily. The second aspect where companies are failing is industrialization. They are often doing great work in one small area, but do not keep in mind the bigger picture. Again, we are trying to do our part by integrating machine learning directly into every business process, so that our clients don’t have to.

Yves: Do you think that the cloud transformation can also bring an added value to companies that want to collect more data or more different sources of data?

Timo: We probably already reached the tipping point where people realize that the cloud is the future for their IT systems. If you work in IT, you probably have a higher risk of losing your job by not implementing cloud than by implementing cloud systems (laughs). If I still meet somebody who is skeptical, one of the areas I point out is artificial intelligence. It only works if you’re collecting lots of data and are then using lots of computer power. It’s a great example of something that just worksmuch better in the cloud.

Yves: Talking about people again: who should be leading this transformation? CIO’s?

Timo: There has been a long transition from CIO meaning Chief Infrastructure Officer, to Chief Innovation Officer. Clearly for an ambitious CIO, you want to be the second. But it doesn’t have to be a specific IT role. It just needs to be somebody who is strong at understanding what technology can do and then translating that into business impact.

I recently had a great conversation with Dr. Astrid Fontaine, CIO at Bentley Motors. What I found fascinating is that she’s also in charge of the business aspects of digital transformation and human resources. At the end of the day, it’s about change management — digital transformation is something you need to do with your staff, not at your staff. You really need to include them in the process. And so at Bentley Motors, they put it all together in one function. I suspect that is the future of how technology and business will come together.

Yves: What about sustainability? How can digital transformation help tackle the climate crisis?

Timo: We are already seeing the effects of extreme weather events. They are already impacting industries such as agriculture and insurance. And unfortunately, we’re going to see more of that in the future. So, what organizations need to do is to invest in platforms that enable change in general.

When it comes to sustainability, doing good is just good business these days, because your customers and employees care a lot about sustainability. Our job in IT is to make sure that it’s as easy as possible for business people to include sustainability tradeoffs and choices as a part of every business process. For example, allowing a designer to include carbon footprint as one of the values they consider, so they can make the best choices for the company, society, and the world.

Yves: What will be the topics we’ll be discussing in 5 years when we do this again?

Timo: One thing I dream about is applying innovation to the process of changing business processes. At this moment, we tend to do innovation as a series of manual steps. But by using machine learning, we have an amazing opportunity to learn more automatically than ever before. So, every business process in your organization can automatically get better over time, just because people are using it. That really is the vision of the intelligent enterprise.

Yves: What advice could you give to our Belgian companies?

Timo: The business models of the future are based on digital feedback loops: gather data, improve your customer relationships, create new products and restart the cycle again. In Belgium, there are a lot of smaller and medium sized enterprises and they have two big advantages: they have closer customer relationships and they are more agile. They can make quicker changes than bigger organizations. But bigger companies also have an advantage: they have more data, and they can use it to increase their dominance in certain industries. And we see that in a lot of areas nowadays. But I believe PME’s can react and compete with them, by making sure they also double down on data and use it as effectively as possible.


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