How can we unlock the true potential of data?

A diverse roundtable of leading data executives share their views on the power and potential of data, as well as the many pitfalls to avoid

Data is often described as the ‘new oil’, but it’s way more precious than that. And, unlike fossil fuel, the more you use it, the more you get back. Data is the future power source of the global economy, but its evolution is fraught with challenges. 

Now is the perfect time, then, to hear from a select group of data chiefs for their views on the data opportunity – how it can supercharge industry, what its limitations are, and what we must overcome to reach its full potential. 

Get closer to the numbers 

For optimal results, organisations must first understand what they have, says Mike Connaughton, head of analytics and data innovation, EMEA, Oracle. “A lot of organisations are still struggling to understand how their data underpins value creation. Research suggests that the top quartile of businesses best placed to acquire and use digital capital are growing exponentially compared with the other three quartiles. So, we know that people who do this well are benefitting, but many are still struggling to understand how their data underpins their organisation. It’s an issue we all have to deal with.” 

What’s clear is that organisations are investing heavily to get to grips with the information at their fingertips, even those with mature data approaches honed over three, four, even five decades. “A challenge most organisations have today is that systems and processes are not designed to quickly and easily derive insights,” says Ashish Surti, EVP technology and security at Colt. 

“Our technology serves us extremely well for our processes and customers, but there are many data entry points. Not everyone fully understands that if you enter a piece of data it could get manipulated 15 times before it drives a decision, and then that call could be completely wrong. Organisations must understand the true architecture of their footprint and run the basics of what is the source, why it was captured and what is its value.” 

Natalie Fishburn, vice president, global head of clinical data and insights at AstraZeneca, agrees: “In the pharmaceutical industry, historically we have thought about data in terms of each individual product, less about the breadth of our data and its potential. 

“We have a project happening now to standardise our data, which will improve its utility in clinical trials. For example, in future, we may be able to simulate trial populations of patients on placebo (‘sugar pill’/inactive treatment), so we don’t need as many people in our trials. This is better for trial participants and gets to the conclusions faster.” 

Building strong foundations 

For Emma Duckworth, director of data science, GSK Consumer Healthcare, it’s crucial to get the basics right: “A data good strategy has to be aligned with your business strategy. So figure out your objectives and work backwards from there. That means clear governance and defined data stewards, AI and ML standards, as well as a data literacy programme that starts with leadership.” 

This is even more important in a world where the technical opportunity outstrips the number of skilled individuals available to run projects. Tris Morgan, director of security advisory services at BT, thinks the answer lies in simplicity. “We’re looking at how we can simplify processes and automate them using data insight as the trigger point for it all so that we can deploy the most precious bodies we have on the park to the highest value activities, while automating easier things that require less expertise.” 

The skills gap and a proliferation of data silos are two of the biggest drags of progress in this area; others include relevancy, technical debt and the need for governance at the national and international level to move with the times, replacing complicated permission forms with tangible proofs that can build trust. Ashish Surti says: “I don’t think the way we’re doing acceptance or consent is really working. The intention was right when we set out, but now it’s a legal document people just do not understand.” 

It’s a gift that will keep on giving. With trust and choice about how data is used, we can let people live better lives

In future, it will be crucial to democratise data and provide users with clear information allowing them to make their own decisions on how their information is used, according to Doug Brown, chief data scientist at Capita. “It’s an interesting frontier but also a difficult problem to solve because of the restrictions on capture and use of data. For regulated industries, it’s fundamental to understand how you have arrived at a particular decision and therefore the ethical boundaries, testing and transparency of the results. 

“We have to prove we don’t want to disenfranchise, or in any way reduce, people’s access as a result of moving to advanced analytics, AI and ML. Individuals want more control and by working collectively we can move the dial on social engagement and purpose.” 

Future opportunities 

If regulators and industry can get the balance right then the possibilities are endless. Natalie Fishburn at AstraZeneca says data applications will get medicines to market faster and reduce the burden on hospitals, ultimately giving people more time with loved ones. 

Emma Duckworth at GSK Consumer Healthcare similarly sees a move towards self-care, with more in-home treatments, lower reliance on prescriptions and fewer visits to the GP. Tris at BT sees data as a weapon against the complex and evolving threat landscape while Ashish Surti at Colt thinks it will improve sustainability and benefit older generations. But all agree that the way we acquire, manage and use data will be fundamental to its application in future, and that there are many questions to answer before we truly witness its optimal use. 

“It’s a gift that will keep on giving,” says Capita’s Doug Brown. “With trust and choice about how data is used, we can let people live better lives. As we move into a more virtual world, organisations that can traverse virtual and physical experiences will win. But if we don’t manage it properly or use it for the right purposes, that will have an impact on brand value and individual relationships alike.” 

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