All data great and small - the hows and whys of a big data strategy
By Luca Smuraglia, General Manager, Enterprise Business, Easynet
I’m a numbers man. I like to look at all the data available and make a decision based on fact, not just instinct. And I’m not alone: whether at work or at home, we all like to arm ourselves with information before we make a decision.
It’s empowering and reassuring. E-Consultancy’s recent Multichannel Retail Survey found that 90% of consumers research online before buying in-store. We amass vast quantities of data as businesses and as consumers, and we’re constantly hearing about explosions of information, tsunamis of data. According to Ofcom's International Communications Market Report, the average UK mobile connection consumed over 424MB of data – higher even than Japan (392MB) in second place and the United States (319MB).
Information as an asset to a business is more important than ever, but the term ‘big data’ is misleading: our data issues today don’t just relate to the vast quantities of data we generate, access and share. Big data also refers to the variety of data and the speed at which it can be accessed, and it is these points and data’s ‘usability’ which have brought it to the forefront of the IT agenda.
In 2013, big data is a competitive advantage. By 2018, I’d go as far as to say that those businesses without a clear data strategy in place will not be around.
Back in 2011, McKinsey called Big Data ‘the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity’, and its predictions were correct. The onus, now, is on a business to put a Big Data strategy in place so it is poised to take advantage of what has become far more than an IT phenomenon – by effectively managing data, we are managing the future of our business.
Although we’ve all heard of Big Data, organisations seem to be slow on the uptake. As you’d expect, there is a correlation between those businesses championing IT as a whole and incorporating it as part of their business strategy, and those investigating the benefits of Big Data.
Research shows that those companies whose IT strategy is aligned with their business plan are more likely to have explored the possibilities of Big Data than those for whom IT is a separate entity. More than nine in ten organisations where the IT strategy is closely mapped to the business plan have already explored the potential benefits of Big Data.
More and more businesses are becoming IT-driven: the stereotypical computer nerd has had the last laugh as he emerges blinking from the depths of the server room, his knowledge prized, to take his rightful place on the senior management team and drive IT forward as part of the overall business strategy. Now, creating a clearly defined Big Data strategy which links to broader business objectives is one step a company can take to ensure it’s in a good position for the future.
CEOs, however, are not all aware of the impact of information on their organisation, and this lack of CEO buy-in could be hampering the abilities of many organisations to put a clearly defined Big Data strategy in place.
Vendors pushing £multi-million analytics packages aren’t helping. Gartner’s 2012 CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey found that whilst growth and profitability were naturally two current business priorities, there was a lack of clarity and understanding about how information could help them achieve their goals. We need, now, to persuade CEOs of the importance of data and how it can help us to identify trends and gain insight.
So what should organisations be looking to achieve from a Big Data strategy, and what should be incorporated? A successful Big Data strategy needs to outline the information needed to drive a business forward. It should identify how data flows in and out of an organisation, and where it’s stored. It should futureproof the organisation, lay a foundation for the business, and should tick all the economic, regulatory, social and environmental boxes.
The strategy shouldn’t stand alone but should integrate with other IT strategies for the business, whether unified comms, cloud or application management. It should also reflect the organisation’s plans for growth and profit, as it will have significant influence on the achievement of these goals.
A company’s Big Data strategy needs to identify, gather and incorporate information from across the business. If a CEO or CIO delves deep into the organisation, he or she will soon realise that informal Big Data management systems are prolific across the business. Successful marketing teams are evangelical about data and use it to tailor communication, analyse customer trends and help with forecasting. The closer a business is to its customers, the better quality data it will store.
Here I must mention the power of a personalised letter which offered a customer some money off his favourite wines whilst enquiring about his lumbago. I disclose this real-life example of clever CRM slightly tongue-in-cheek but companies absolutely must be deserving of our money, and if they genuinely care about their customers, they should demonstrate it by using the data they have to create a bespoke, appropriate and timely customer experience.
The HR department, too, may have a data strategy in place: think of the data it manages each day, including personal employee data, payroll information and pension details. It is likely to have systems in place to help it access, manage, and protect this data.
A successful Big Data strategy should include detail on which departments are using information, how they’re generating it, how they’re using it, and where it’s drawn from, stored and shared.
Once that data is gleaned from across the business, a Big Data strategy should address how the data will be organised, stored and analysed. The cloud coupled with big data is a match made in heaven, as a cloud platform removes the requirement for a business to ‘hold onto’ its data within the confines of its corporate network, and outsources the burden of security.
Any investments, though, should only be made as part of an overall plan with clearly defined measures of success. Equally, companies should see what value can be extracted from existing data sets rather than looking to spend on new data sources.
Finally, making the most of Big Data will inevitably involve new ways of working, and systems, processes and procedures which may be unfamiliar to staff, so an organisation should consider building in ‘softer’ objectives to its strategy, looking at leadership and change management capabilities.
Big data remains a big issue, but it doesn’t have to engulf an organisation. With a clear strategy in place, the opportunities are there for the taking.
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