The cabbie welcomed me and we started on our way to Dulles. The snow had been falling for hours, and his impression was that people would be trying to beat the weather. I was indeed leaving a bit early to make sure to catch my flight back to the West Coast. The email I received that morning from my in-laws in French Polynesia didn’t help.

When he asked what the conference was about, I replied “analytics”. He looked at me with a blank stare. I explained that the conference was about people making sense of data, with the help of technology. It helped a little bit, but not much. I began to touch on the use of analytics in sports, making better strategic decisions based on a number of variables: Was it better to repeatedly pound it in to the block, or fire away from 3 point range, or a mix of both? I referenced the TV show “Person of Interest”. I told a story of how Wal-mart had discovered a multi-million dollar opportunity by finding an anomaly in the data.

It began to make sense. While most of the world goes on about their day, clinging to their nightly news, happy that their iPhone takes great pictures, and complaining about Obamacare, the physical world is being digitally connected. These connections are producing incomprehensible amounts of data, which is creating both opportunity and challenges for organizations to earn the attention, trust, transactions, and loyalty of their customers.

Analytics growing in strategic importance

I heard several folks at this year’s SAS Global Forum making the case that analytics is the trump card that is helping to pave the CIO’s path to the more strategic conversations at executive table. The case is underscored by IBM’s latest C-Suite study, which shows several data points that there is increasing demand for strategic CIOs.

There is also plenty of posturing and championing of new roles like Chief Data Officer, and Chief Analytics Officer. Regardless of whether these new roles come to fruition at scale (my bet is no), there are three primary themes to note, all which were underscored at the SAS conference:

  • The analytics conversation is being elevated to the C-Suite and board levels
  • Increased demand for speed and more accurate decisions driving investment
  • There is significant need for, and current shortage of, data scientists over the coming years

While there were around 4,500 people at the event at the Gaylord National just outside of Washington DC, about 1/3 of them were attending the executive conference, a subset of the conference away from the technologists, engineers, data scientists, and statisticians, which highlights the strategic elevation that data analytics is playing in corporate leadership.

The Executive portion of the conference has grown significantly in attendance over the past few years as the impetus to make better decisions by knowing more about customer preferences, behaviors, supply chain details, and market factors, has placed increased pressure on senior executives.

Retired General and former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Colin Powell, highlighted the role that timely and accurate information plays in leadership. Building organizations to sense and respond to information, to differentiate the known, from the speculative, and then apply the very best judgement is the key requirement of leadership. There are probably few leaders in the world that know more about building an information gathering architecture in order to make critical, timely decisions.

Along the gauntlet of challenges then, is vastly improving core capabilities in collecting, analyzing, and understanding key pieces of information and then being able to decisively take action on them. This is the challenge that all organizations are facing today, and the significant opportunity that SAS and other vendors have before them.

SAS is addressing this market need by making investments in coordinating activities for marketers to allow more sense and respond abilities from one centralized dashboard. SAS announced they’ve made improvements to last year’s release of Customer Intelligence 6, a step ahead towards coordinating all marketing operations that SAS provides under one umbrella; planning, segmentation, modeling, creative, campaign execution, analysis, and relaunch. Forthcoming releases will aim to make further improvements to the user experience, integration across marketing functions, and add greater deployment ease and flexibility.

Smarter, Stronger, Faster.

Speed. Speed is arguably at the core of every innovation that’s happening. The basic and fundamental tenets of what we’re doing as a society haven’t really changed in millennia.

Making progress (regardless of the institution) by identifying challenges, imagining new solutions, assembling resources, making, and then distributing ideas, products, and resources is how the world has worked for a long time.

But across every domain, we can, and in many cases we are being forced to, do things much faster, in a more complex environment.

Data driven decision making also isn’t new. The two main differences now are that (1) we now have access to unfathomable amounts of data, ever increasing in its granularity, and (2) we can make sense of it much faster than before. This is evidenced by how automated the public stock markets have become with the vast majority of all trades being made by institutions, based on real time data and algorithms, and constantly evolving models. The migration from gut feel to data driven is happening everywhere.

Not very long ago, decision cycles were typically annual, quarterly, or often on a monthly basis. Historical data informed future projections and decisions. Often times, decisions were made without visibility to key information. It was either not available, or took too long to gather. Data is increasing in its general availability and it’s moving ever closer to real time.

One of the most valuable data sets for corporations is related to their customers and prospects. A flurry of tech startups are emerging at the fringes of this movement to aggregate and make better sense of customer data to help marketers, sales people, and contact center agents be able to respond to their customers better. I’ll highlight many of these in a future post. Have suggestions that might be off my radar? Please send me a note.

The same trajectory as what’s happened in the public stock markets is happening on the fringes of the traditional CRM spectrum, primarily in marketing and service, as customer interactions are disseminated and distributed across a sea of pixels.

The pace of acceleration and innovation is frantic. It’s important to note that concurrently to the SAS event, Adobe was hosting it’s own summit in Salt Lake City, with several announcements of their own, aimed at addressing these very issues, while rumors surfaced that IBM is in talks to potentially acquire Silverpop, a leader in marketing automation.

While SAS, one of the world’s leaders in analytics technology, specializes across many domains, my interest lies primarily with how analytics are being leveraged for better customer understanding and more valuable customer interactions across a widening sphere of channels and data sources.

I heard great stories from Hyatt Hotels, Disney, Wal-mart, and T-Mobile about how they are both embracing the opportunity, but wrestling through the challenges of large data sets and more transient customers, and how SAS has become a trusted partner in their efforts.

The onslaught of big data is forcing the use of new platform technology. Hadoop is becoming (if not already is) the standard for big data processing, and SAS announced its in-memory analytics for Hadoop to allow for rapid analytics to be applied to giant data sets.

One of the challenges with these gargantuan data sets is making sense of them. Ten or twenty years ago, organizations spent massive amounts of money creating reports that provided answers to specific questions. Senior leaders used between 5 and 50 “reports” to gather intelligence about what was happening.

Now, there is increasing pressure and expectation that information be instantly available, visible, and dynamic. These are couple of areas when SAS excels. With their previously released visual analytics and the recently announced visual statistics, users have the ability to navigate and understand enormous data sets in real time, while building predictive models based on the data.

Another interesting highlight of the event is that this current onslaught of data is creating a significant talent gap. In order to help with building the market capabilities required to address the coming talent gap (and obviously to help incubate a new generation of SAS users), SAS unveiled its eduction program that all college students can use SAS analytics for free. Since they’ve seen success with this model at NC State, they are extending not only to all universities, but to all students at these universities.

SAS: A quick assessment

SAS is widely regarded as one of the global leaders in analytics and boasts a who’s who of global clients. They’ve achieved an unfathomable record of 38 straight years of revenue increases. They are also generally regarded as one of the best places in the world to work.

However, their ability to innovate at or beyond the pace of the market is a critical challenge for them at this time. With the scale of the cloud, smaller, more agile technology vendors have the opportunity to compete on many of SAS Institute’s core competitive fronts: analytics, marketing automation, MRM, data visualization, predictive analytics, and in-memory processing. Not only this, but traditionally large enterprise players like IBM, Oracle, and SAP continue to bolster their respective suites to provide solutions to the marketplace. SAS is making moves to address these factors by moving to more pure cloud offerings and positioning themselves to be able to deploy for more Small to Midsized businesses. But, just as this post illustrates, the name of the game is speed, not just for their clients, but also for SAS itself.

DISCLAIMER: SAS Institute, Inc. paid for all of my travel, accommodations, and much of my food and beverage at SAS Global Forum in Washington DC. They are also a thought leadership client.