Decision Democratization Using Modern Data Analytics

It would be impossible for us not to consider the global pandemic and its impact on the state of digitalization as part of our three-part series on data strategy, and for good reason. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught all of us new things about society, about ourselves, and about how we do work.

While some businesses had to shut down due to national regulations, most in the maritime industry were deemed essential workers and had to find new ways to do many things that were once normal almost overnight.

Many challenges with service availability, communication, and decision management had to be overcome, and fast. The rapid decentralization of many teams led to technological and cultural advances. While many at first sought ways to continue things as they used to do them, they soon realized that novel approaches contain opportunities for sustained change and optimization. Some say organizations’ digitization has moved forward five years in just the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So, what are the implications of the things we are looking at in our three-part series on data value generation? One of the issues many organizations have faced is inertia creeping into their decision-making processes.  

Start at the Beginning: Data Management Is Fundamental

Early in 2020, one could just walk into the office next door to ask for a particular piece of information. Now, with most of the administrative staff in home offices, the only thing one has found next door was a child in home-schooling. That has meant we have had to resort to Microsoft Teams, Slack, emails, our phones, or any other means of communication to reach that someone sitting on the data we need to make a decision or, worse, get the data needed to compile a report to get to someone else needing to make a decision. These situations reinforced two things we know about decision-making: the power to decide needs to be democratized and the main resource to enable this decision democratization is data.  

Decision Democratization and Data 

To achieve this democratization, we need to enable our people to have access to correct, reliable, and relevant data across organizational functions on a centralized platform via an intuitive interface. Additionally, they need access to business intelligence (BI) tools like Qlik Sense, Microsoft Power BI, or the range of others on the market that enable them to load that data into an intuitive user interface that allows them to quickly visualize the information inside the data, to derive insights, and to ultimately take a decision.  

It is important in a governed framework that data access is as open as possible for any individual who makes decisions on the spot. Put simply, while visualizing and wrangling data in one’s own domain might be sufficient most of the time, all too often, it is the data coming in from another business unit or function that provides valuable context and enhances certainty. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemann put it best when he said, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”  

Business Intelligence Tools Are Fundamental 

Modern self-service business intelligence tools easily enable users to build new analytics applications in minutes using a web-based drag-and-drop interface. More importantly, they enable people to extend existing dashboards and analytics with additional data in just a few clicks. This flexibility allows companies to bring digitally based, reliable, and informed decision-making to every level of their organization. Not being able to reach a certain individual would no longer throw a spanner into the decision works since vital information can be drawn from a centralized source, easily refined, and easily understood. 

Traditionally, enterprise BI solutions required substantial effort to set up and customize. However, with today’s technology, building a BI dashboard is much easier than it was in the past, resulting in a BI market that is crowded and very competitive. It is easy to get dazzled by fancy features and pretty dashboards that don’t necessarily add value. Companies must make sure they get the best value out of their investment. As a starting point, buyers should ensure that their BI vendor has a proven track record of delivering solutions tailored to the needs of the bulk materials industry. This will make it easier to access relevant and actionable information for the planning and decision-making process across the maritime industry. 

Where There’s Data, There’s Key Performance Indicators 

“Most people use statistics like a drunkard uses a lamppost; more for support than illumination.” When Mark Twain wrote this quote more than one hundred years ago, the second industrial revolution saw electricity replace steam as the main source of power. Today, data drives industries around the world and is replacing uncertainty. With the latest digital technologies, one can measure almost anything, but just because they can measure something doesn’t mean they should. The challenge is to count the things that really matter and relate to business success, namely Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). 

In a modern terminal environment, there is no shortage of data and, increasingly, no shortage of KPIs to make that data “actionable.” The problem is having the right KPIs. KPIs combined with the latest Business Intelligence (BI) tools provide granular visibility as never seen before. How can these insights be used to drive logistics performance and decision-making? Good KPIs are also quickly measurable and reproducible. Equally, if not more important, all departments across the company should have the same understanding of a particular KPI.  

Focus must also be given to contextualize a KPI. As an example, focusing solely on ship-to-ship (STS) productivity is certainly a wise move for a maritime terminal. However, when not considering the broader process chain involved in taking containers to and from STS cranes, the KPI is only likely to reveal the symptom and not the cause of any potential issues. A well-rounded suite of KPIs that consider the complete terminal operations are more likely to assist managers in diagnosing operational issues in real time. 

BI tools take the dashboard idea to the next level. Beyond simple reporting, they offer trend analysis, forecasting, and what-if scenarios, and they have the power to drill down to the deepest level of detail to analyze each transaction. In the race for data, the latest BI tools combine data from a multitude of sources and enable port and terminal operators to discover new relations in their company’s data structure. 

Data Literacy – It’s Not a Skill-set; It’s a Mindset 

A shift needs to happen with regard to how people see data visualization, reporting, and analytics. In many organizations today, people use analytics, but they use it because they have to for meetings, reports, audits, etc., things that are more of a chore than something they do for themselves. People must learn to recognize data and analytics as a chance to enhance their everyday work lives. Staff need to learn to want to use analytics. Insight-driven decision-making is therefore not simply implemented on a technology level, but needs to be anchored in a company’s culture. The term that combines the “upskilling” (knowing how to use tools and how and when to use which data or visualization) and the mindset shift is called “Data Literacy.” And just like general literacy, the ability to read, work with, analyze, and argue with data should become second nature to people in a data-driven company – at every level.  

Describing ways to drive data literacy and transforming an organizational culture toward becoming more data- or insights-driven would require an entire article by itself. Do not be put off by the subject. It should also not come as a surprise, after all, that in 2018 we penned a paper in Port Technology titled “Humans and Technology: Understanding the Sceptical User,” where we dug into the psychology of humans and change, especially change resulting from technology projects. Normally, there is no need to run an entire organizational overhaul with a massive management consulting project. The best way to get started with this is to pick an area of need, find early adopters, and generate results.  

Read More: Humans and Technology

Moving Forward 

So, what does all of this mean for us? We have seen that data analytics is already much more than just a tool that gives us quicker access to our numbers for reporting purposes. It is a tool that allows us to aggregate and view business and associated data in context, which enables us to make informed, fact-based decisions. Modern BI platforms allow users to access governed, curated information and then extend it using readily available data from a centralized data analytics platform. This gives people the huge advantage of not having to escalate questions across a hierarchy. It enables them to make decisions by themselves – with the highest level of certainty.  

Deploying data analytics platforms and inspiring the people in an organization to embrace data- or insights-driven approaches to tackle their everyday challenges is something we have been successfully doing for many years and to great effect. In our next article, we are going to elaborate on how you can use data science with modern algorithms and AI to broaden the data foundation underlying individual decisions even further, which will continue to push the limits of operations and automation. 

Stay tuned… 

How Can INFORM Help? 

At INFORM, we are always looking to the future to understand what products and solutions we need to be developing and positioning into the port and terminals industry. Building on our decades of experience and rich knowledge base that spans our 850+ strong company, INFORM has been quietly working on our data strategy, offering to enrich our customers’ data sets, which in turn enriches our Machine Learning-, AI-, and Operations Research-based algorithms, all of which depend on good quality and, as we learned here, timely access to data. Leveraging both the expertise of INFORM’s DataLab and our team’s rich industry experience, our data strategy services are unmatched in the industry. 


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