CAPE TOWN - In 13th century Europe, literacy was largely confined to the clergy and some elites, and few adults among the general population could read or write.
 
However, that picture changed as a result of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440. 

Europe was flooded with printed material and literacy rates began to rise, helping to pave the way for the advances of the middle to late Renaissance, the Reformation and beyond.
 
Fast forward to today, we’re seeing modern business intelligence and data analytics tools promise to democratise access to information in the enterprise in the same way the printing press brought knowledge from books to the masses.

 In many organisations data continues to be entrusted only to senior executives and to the analysts or financial gurus, also known as The Mushroom Effect, who gather and crunch the numbers for their bosses.

 Data is power
 
The reason for this is simple: Many managers see data as power, and the control and ownership of data can be politically charged in some organisations. 

Ownership of and access to data is all about who gets to make the decisions, who is held accountable for them, and even who owns corporate assets such as the customer relationship or intellectual property.
 
A few examples:


-       Financial managers, for example, may question why line staff should have sight of budgets and forecasts.

-       Product managers may spar over the ownership of customer data.

-       And marketing managers may be nervous to share metrics data with their peers in sales.

Top leaders, meanwhile, wonder if operational workers can be trusted with the power that data gives them. 

Who’s to say they’ll interpret it correctly and make smart decisions?
 
Yet this old-fashioned outlook is out of touch with the realities of business today. In much the same way as mass literacy transformed society for the better, giving everyone access to datacan promote accountability, innovation and high performance throughout the business.

 As we move to a digitally-savvy workforce, organisations have tremendous opportunities todecentralise decision-making.
 
Data for the people
 
This, in turn, can help them to become more responsive to the needs of their customers and to developments in the business environment.
 
Rather than keeping employees in the dark, managers should be giving them the data they need to cast light on their everyday interactions with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders.

It’s called democratisation of data and it can transform the business.
 
This development is made possible by the availability of self-service business intelligence tools that allow people to interrogate data using familiar interfaces such as Excel, or to look at visual representations of business trends in graphs and tables. 

Artificial intelligence and natural language interfaces (speech recognition or chatbots, for example) will make it even simpler in thefuture for people at all levels of the organisation to make sense of data.
 
Smart decisions from the boardroom to the shop floor
 
This is not a trend to be feared in a progressive organisation since it means every person in the business can start making smarter decisions - the operational people in the field and on theshop floor as well the top strategic decision makers. 

The result could be a more agile company that makes good choices in real-time - whether these choices are about giving a discount to a customer, procurement of supplies, or maintenance of business assets.
 
Of course, there are valid concerns about security of confidential data and the dangers of people drawing inaccurate conclusions from the data.

 Yet these challenges can be addressed with end-user training and a robust data governance framework. Most organisations will find that the benefits will outweigh the risks and complexities.
 
In a world that needs nimble decision-making and democratisation of data – this is a way to unleash the full productivity and creativity of your workforce.

Charles Teversham is the  MD of Sage Intelligence.

- BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE