Can GDPR trigger innovation?

Arturo Salazar, data management driver at SAS EMEA

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation has received a lot of press over the last few years. Organisations are still discussing how to implement it, and it has often, if not routinely, been viewed as a challenge and a requirement, a box that needs to be ticked before everyone can get on with doing their day jobs again.

Recently, however, I have noticed a slight change in the tone of the discussion. There is still – probably inevitably – a lot of talk about how hard it is for organisations, and a realisation that many of the standard ways of working need to change. There is also, however, a faint sense in some quarters that GDPR might actually be a force for good, and that going beyond compliance could provide huge benefits to organisations.

Changing views of GDPR

This change started with a somewhat grudging acceptance that GDPR was moving organisations in the right direction. In other words, that it was right that individuals were in control of their own data, however challenging that might be for organisations. The change in attitude goes further, however, towards the idea that GDPR might actually – whisper it – be good for organisations, that there might be benefits to knowing what data you were holding, and actually having to organise it properly.

I think we are likely to see particular benefits in innovation. Innovation is a big user of data. Before you can innovate, you need to understand more about what is happening now, what customers want, how they are using existing products, and where there are gaps. This can only be done with data, and preferably personal data. Personalisation in particular is only possible with personal data. What’s more, it needs to be good quality. GDPR forces organisations to improve the way that they manage and process personal data, and that can only be good for innovation.

Just consider why so many innovation projects have failed in the past. One of the main reasons is the amount of work required to gather, consolidate, clean and update the data required. Many projects have simply wilted and died under the strain. In a GDPR-compliant world, a good deal of this work will be done routinely, and as part of normal, everyday data operations. Innovation efforts will, therefore, be starting from a very different place.

The benefits of GDPR, however, do not stop there. The changes in how we process and manage data, and particularly the need to understand what we hold, and how it can be used, will affect plenty of other processes too. Machine learning and artificial intelligence, for instance, cannot be brought to bear to improve personalisation and tailoring without accurate personal data. GDPR will force organisations to establish and document informed consent, and log profiling details against audit requirements, and this will mean that data will be much more accurate.

Analysing data from the Internet of Things will also benefit. Many of the “things,” after all, belong to people, and their key use is in improving the services and offers provided to their owners. Better personal data means better and more efficient analytics, and an improved customer experience.

Benefiting from change

Data scientists are likely to be among the first beneficiaries of these changes. They use personal data all the time, and will reap the rewards of better data quality and accuracy. Quite apart from anything else, better data operations will mean that expensive data scientists have to spend less time preparing data. This, in turn, will allow them to spend more time solving business problems, and building or improving models. It may result in changing priorities, such as the adoption of a “DevOps” or “AnalyticsOps” approach that brings together analysts and business users, and makes problem solving more focused. Paradoxically, this will also help to ensure GDPR compliance, creating a virtuous circle of data management and use.

It is, therefore, important to see more than the challenges of GDPR. Yes, it will continue to drive changes in the way that we do business, and these changes do affect IT operations, but it is not all bad. GDPR offers significant opportunities for organisations to take a long, hard look at their data operations, and make them fully fit for purpose in a world that is increasingly dependent on data and analytics. That will have huge knock-on benefits for many years to come, including in data governance, customer relationships and trust. Think of it as the first step in a corporate innovation program.

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