The Concealed Treasure Uncovered

The picture had, so it seems, hung on the wall of the London kitchen for quite some time.  So long, in fact, that the flat owners had somehow grown used to it and started using it as a conventional and communal noticeboard – clearly unaware of the true value of this work of art.  The parents of the flat owner, who had migrated to England in the 70’s, had brought the painting with them when they left South Africa, with little awareness as to its history.

It took a routine valuation visit to the flat of an artwork professional, Hannah O’Leary, an authority on South African art at the renowned Bonhams auction house, to recognise this significant painting – half-buried, as it was, beneath letters, travel postcards and family bills.

arab in black painting

Arab in Black was painted in 1939 by Irma Stern (1894-1966), regarded by many as one of the leading South African artists.  Ever since Stern’s death her works have been rapidly appreciating in value; one of her works, in fact, sold for more than £3 million in 2011.

Initial estimates have valued Arab in Black at more than £1 million.[1]

But Arab in Black is not just an artistic find; the painting possesses an important political provenance.  In the late 50’s the artwork was auctioned to raise money for Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress (ANC) activists, including Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, who were on trial for alleged high treason and faced the death penalty.  The painting, in fact, was a noteworthy element in Mandela’s defence fund.

Most business entities experience a similar situation to the above anecdote; in today’s knowledge economy – increasingly dependent on data and information – some business organisations lack a realistic appreciation of the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the data elements that exist within the various corporate systems and applications implemented within, possibly beyond, their own business organisations.  The very ubiquity that renders corporate data such an important component of today’s business organisations, can tend to sometimes obscure such same data within a business value perspective.  In fact, there is today so much business data surrounding us that many often fail to even notice its very presence.

The seemingly ever-present Arab in Black meant that those around it never questioned its significance.  Similarly, corporate data in today so pervasive in our everyday business processes that few ever bother to question the true value of such data if exploited within a different or diverse context.

In a highly competitive economic climate most business organisation have tended to seek to primarily streamline internal processes as the main measure through which to introduce efficiency, reduce costs, enhance sales and nurture customer loyalty.  In relative contrast, other organisations have recognised the fact that key corporate data ‘buried’ deep within internal information systems and applications can equally serve as a strategic source of business improvement when exploited within innovative and creative usage.

At a time when most organisations are seeking to implement sound data analytic techniques and various aspects of Big Data technologies, comprising massive volumes of structured and unstructured data from multiple and discrete sources, many fail to appreciate which data can successfully be converted into information in order to provide vital corporate knowledge and tangible business value.  In fact, the critical need to identify and discriminate the valuable data ‘wheat’ from the humdrum ‘chaff’’ within a Big Data environment becomes more of a challenge to the untrained user.

It often needs a data specialist to assess Information Technology (IT) systems and Information Systems (IS) in order to recognise and extract such valuable data.  A data specialist will not only recognises the value of discrete data elements but, more importantly, see the potential usefulness of integrating data from one (or more) system/s to another.  In fact, the role of a data professional is often described as someone who can recognise potential business value within corporate data where others fail to recognise such value.

To the inexperienced, the data professional may be perceived as some latter-day treasure hunter, seeking some long-lost (data) trove, buried in some inhospitable environment.  This cannot be further from the truth.  Contrary to real-life treasure hunters, the value of corporate data is highly dynamic and changes – sometimes depreciating completely – over time; so failing to recognise what can render timely value today may not necessarily persist over a prolonged period of time.  Today’s data treasure can easily become tomorrow’s garbage.  ‘Arab in Black’ may have endured years of relative disregard and neglect, but data, in contrast, would not survive similar drawn-out inattention since it is a largely perishable resource unless uncovered and processed in a timely manner.

The data professional will assess the general business environment, implement a broad data discovery process and highlight which data sources and underlying elements, or combination of, may provide value when applied within the appropriate context.  The objective is to delve into disparate data elements which can be tapped to provide business value through corporate insights.

Having identified the key data sources and elements, the data professional needs to initiate the complex processes of integrating the various sources within an automated process so that end-users can gain from the association process on a regular and ongoing basis.  This is the basis of a data-driven business model that feeds crucial data to decisive stakeholders and decision-makers.

The sources of business data value can often surprise even those who themselves have been populating the very corporate systems that shelter this information.  The analogy with Arab in Black is just as uncanny.  Following the discovery of the painting, Bonhams announced that the heavy, ornate frame that protected the painting for so many years was ‘itself a rare and valuable thing, made from the timbers of elaborately carved antique door cases from Zanzibar, which are now barred from export.’  A stroke of fortunate luck indeed.

[1] On the 9th September, 2015, Arab in Black was sold for €1,153,161 during auction.

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