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Taking Data and Analytics to the Next Level in 2021: Q&A with Radiant Advisors' John O'Brien

In the future, 2021 may be viewed as a sharp turning point when companies recovered from the dramatic changes of 2020 and moved from surviving to thriving. Recently, John O’Brien, CEO and principal advisor, Radiant Advisors, spoke with BDQ about the challenges and opportunities for organizations as they emerge from the seismic shifts of the past year and how they are refocusing their analytics efforts to get more value from data.

O’Brien will further explore how organizations are returning to their long-term data and analytics strategies with greater clarity during a keynote talk titled, “How Companies Are Shifting to Business Outcomes for Their Driving Data and Analytics Strategies” at Data Summit Connect 2021 in May.

BDQ: What are the big challenges that you are seeing right now that customers are facing?
John O’Brien: We see companies now making the flip between last year and this year. In 2020, there was a lot going on in our clients’ companies. Obviously, everyone got stopped in their tracks. A lot of companies had good programs going on that got deprioritized or put on hold but were not canceled. They were in a very reactive mode, but it was because there was off-the-charts amounts of volatility.

BDQ: How has this been revealed?
O’Brien: Some companies—we call it the letter K—were skyrocketing up because the COVID situation had a positive impact on them. And quite a few had the bottom line of the letter K as they were spiraling down. At first, companies were thinking about how to get by temporarily, but as the months and quarters went on, this went into "It's not changing anytime soon." Then there were the companies that were saying, "Well, how are we going to thrive in this?” A lot of companies were thinking about A, what they had to do to get by, and then B, when things do start to turn around in 2021 or 2022, being able to move with that.

BDQ: What has been the greatest change for companies?
O’Brien: The biggest impact that we see in companies from a data analytics perspective is that the agile and speed components of analytics were really tested. There was a new definition of what agile meant for BI and data analytics work. Some large enterprises found out what they were doing wasn't fast enough. You have to be able to react fast. You have to have first-mover advantage.

BDQ: What else?
O’Brien: The second thing was that a lot of them were saying they were doing digital transformation, but they were still doing their old business model in a virtual, remote-work kind of way. They were not really embracing digital transformation. At the end of the year, we saw companies with this clarity about what digital transformation and being agile mean. They came into 2021 wanting to revisit their data-and-analytics strategy, and they have this renewed energy and enthusiasm about what it needs to be because they just went through a year in the trenches.

BDQ: How has it changed their perspective?
O’Brien: A lot of companies are now trying to figure out how to be business-outcome-driven. They were working on it with the luxury of time and with the economy going well. Now, it's a table-stakes, got-to-survive, next-generation-of-the-company situation and they are trying to prioritize what is important. They have learned a lot, which will really set them up for the next couple of years.

BDQ: What are some of the newer approaches that are being considered? What about the “data lakehouse”?
O’Brien: That one's pretty interesting. The data lakehouse is really an evolution beyond the data warehouse and data lake, but what you'll find is the question of whether or not all companies need to evolve that far. It does make sense. We always said compute technologies of SQL engines will get good enough at some point in order to run a lakehouse type of model. Up until now, data lakes have not been efficient enough. A data lake basically has the highest level of affordable scalability and flexibility of formats, but it's actually one of the worst performing. I think the real question when we get asked by clients about the lakehouse is whether the architecture fits their needs and their maturity. Having something as robust as a lakehouse might be a little bit of overkill for some of these companies.

BDQ: How do you feel about low code and is this approach becoming more relevant for analytics?
O’Brien: I'm a big fan of the low-code and no-code world. We've been helping companies move to this kind of paradigm. When there are knowledge workers, subject-matter experts—the business SMEs—and  you give them a no-code or low-code kind of tool to work with data, they are going to be 10 times more efficient in finding, exploring, and validating data than a data engineer or data scientist. They have the business knowledge, which means that when they look at something, they can say, "That's not right” or “That’s bad data." It is business data enablement, and we've got a whole practice dedicated to this.

BDQ: Is this trend tied to the metamorphosis companies went through in 2020?
O’Brien: It's the next incarnation of agile BI that we've seen for a couple of decades. It's just that now, companies are trying to be data-driven, which means that they are enabling everybody in the business to work with the data. In the technologies, the low-code world is one of the biggest trends moving forward. And then the second one is cloud. Very simply, the ability for  people to self-provision their own needs and resources, that's the other piece where you're taking time out of the cycle.

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