There is no doubt that data analytics is coming of age, turning the wealth of data that we are collecting into meaningful input that guides the direction of business. Though it’s still early for mainstream data analytics adoption, this is the time to understand and build on the opportunity.
The low cost and high availability of computing power have brought machine learning to the masses. Microsoft Azure Machine Learning opens the door for any business and every partner to experiment and test without a big investment. Combine that with the increasing availability of public domain and commercial datasets, and you have the ingredients to support predictive analytics projects. The challenge so far, though, has been how to convince clients to take on those projects when the end game is unclear.
One ISV with unique insight into the market for predictive analytics shares its lessons learned.
“It seems that the whole world is trying to figure out how to make better use of analytics,” said Bob Bedard, president and CEO of deFacto Global Inc. “Even the firms leading the charge, like Microsoft and IBM, are still working out how to make money in areas like predictive analytics. It’s no wonder that partners aren’t sure how to help their clients through the world of big data analytics.”
For deFacto, whose Performance Management solution helps businesses improve budgeting and forecasting, predictive analytics and machine learning are a natural extension. “Traditionally, financial forecasting was a rudimentary process, with lots of room for improvement,” Bedard explained. “There weren’t the tools or they were too costly. The whole arena of predictive analytics was really out of reach for mainstream business.”
“That has changed dramatically. Affordable computing power, large datasets and the tools like Azure Machine Learning are coming together to make it practical for all business to take advantage of the benefits,” continues Bedard. “The next two years are very promising for everyone in the BI [business intelligence] and analytics space.”
Not all customers are good candidates for predictive analytic projects. Since this is a developing field, customers have to be open to exploring possibilities, even where ROI is harder to predict. Management must have some level of trust in the guidance provided by machine-led forecasting. Old-school companies that prefer the gut-instinct approach to forecasting and decision-making are unlikely to embrace predictive analytics.
In addition, predictive analytics projects require a broader perspective than traditional BI projects. “The methodology for machine learning and predictive analytics project is a different path. You have to take a more global approach,” Bedard said. “In the past, customers and partners were focused on using the data from inside the company. For predictive analytics, high-level value comes from understanding how external data interacts with or enhances the quality of internal data.”
Microsoft is building the availability of those datasets that partners can tap into on the Azure Marketplace. Also in its infancy, the breadth of datasets available for businesses to apply through machine learning will surely explode over the coming years.
“It can be overwhelming,” Bedard said. “But that’s where methodology comes in. How do we bite off what we can chew and step through it in a logical fashion? There is tremendous value in that practical guidance to help businesses take the first steps into predictive analytics.”
For partners taking on predictive analytics projects, that larger perspective is where they can bring tremendous value to clients. Understanding what data is available, from industry-specific sources to something as ubiquitous as weather data, and how that input can be applied through machine learning takes BI to the higher level of predictive guidance.
Now that predictive analytics is within reach of every business but still early in the adoption curve, the opportunity for partners is here. Gartner identifies “Advanced, Pervasive and Invisible Analytics” as one of its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2015. Microsoft partners are in the unique position, with Azure services and learning paths designed to prepare staff, to get ahead of the new age of data.