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Business analytics is a massive productivity tool that no competitive nation can afford to ignore

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In the global playing field of a knowledge-based economy, it's the top of the ninth and the bases are loaded. Canada's team is up to bat.

We can't foresee future curveballs, of course, but generally how well our country's businesses continue to play with and against those of top-league innovation leaders will depend largely on how well we harness our talent pool.

Canada is a little late coming up to bat in major league R&D investment, as pointed out by the report released last summer by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, but there are encouraging signs.

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Business analytics is a $12.2-billion (U.S., in 2011) productivity tool that no competitive nation can afford to ignore, according to IT research and advisory company Gartner Inc.

Fortunately, more Canadian businesses are pursuing this new frontier of advanced statistical analysis and the use of complex algorithms to gather and analyze meaningful market data.

In fact, business analytics is the fastest growing category of global IT software expenditure, according to a recent Forrester Research study, and 97 per cent of companies with revenue of more than $100-million are pursuing expertise in this new frontier, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. (A wise investment, it would seem, since, according to Nucleus Research, every dollar that a company invests in business analytics earns $10.66.)

Today's competitive businesses have volumes of data but not nearly enough skilled analysts to distill it into useable and meaningful forms. In fact, the sector is growing so quickly that a McKinsey & Company report forecasts a shortage by 2018 of professionals specializing in the field, people trained to distill data into meaningful information to analyze, understand and predict consumer needs, wants and behaviour.

Business analytics is a vital key to the global competitiveness of Canadian companies, as it can help to build a lifetime value framework for customer service. Not only can big data help companies retain and build relationships with customers, creating more value for both their customers and their brands, it can help companies to acquire new customers more cost-effectively.

The educated and intelligent use of business analytics can enhance productivity and create value by targeting messages and offers to ensure that the right customer gets the right message about the right product at the right time. In the hands of practitioners without the rigorous training to manage associated business risks, however, this powerful tool can end up damaging the corporate value chain rather than strengthening it.

Privacy concerns need to be better understood and respected by socially responsible companies wishing to maintain the trust of consumers. Greater transparency will be demanded by the public with the proliferation of Web browsers using increasingly sophisticated and quasi-anonymous algorithms, behavioural tracking systems and ad-tracking "cookies" to monitor their online movements.

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In the U.S., concerns about so-called "zombie" processes on computers and smartphones are being addressed in part by the Do-Not-Track option endorsed by Digital Advertising Alliance, which represents more than 90 per cent of U.S. online advertising.

Canada's Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has raised similar concerns about covert tracking and has issued guidelines to behavioural advertisers and restrictions on the tracking of children and tracking technologies that can't be switched off.

Yet business analytics is not a tool that serves only corporate interests. Consumers and non-profit groups also have much to gain from the scrupulous use of such finely tuned intelligence gathered by powerful algorithms.

When it comes to navigating our increasingly complicated world, more information – as long as it is relevant and managed – is always better than less. Perhaps shortfalls in medical supplies may be averted by predictive analytics that show growing demand by an aging infirm population in time for drug manufacturers to adjust inventory, for instance.

Business analytics is a tool that democratizes and empowers the consumer as a participant in the advertising and marketing process – giving the consumer a voice in brand improvements and pricing, even potentially in new product development. Bring on the future of incisive marketing.

Murat Kristal is program director of the new Master of Science in Business Analytics program at the Schulich School of Business at York University and a professor of Operations Management & Information Systems.

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Join the conversation on Canada's competitiveness by following Canada Competes on Twitter: @CanadaCompetes

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