“Big data” has all the hallmarks of a faddish term – two seemingly innocuous words lumped together and repeated continuously as if they were a mantra.
This means that people can define it in multiple ways (never a good thing in business) and make all sorts of claims about what it promises or threatens.
The hype can lead managers to make one of two mistakes: either dismiss it as no more than a passing obsession or, led by some of the more outlandish claims, make poor decisions in a bid to “leverage” it (to use a term beloved of vendors and commentators). In both cases managers can be accused of failing to think through what it will mean for their job and their company.
Bernard Marr – one of big data’s big voices – recently produced “20 mind-boggling facts” about the phenomenon that are exactly the kind of thing that can make your eyes glaze over but should be useful when you think through the implications for your team, your function, your business unit, or your company.
For example, he says that five years from now there will be 50 billion devices and objects connected to the internet, and so to one another. For IT professionals, this has huge implications for everything from the investments companies need to make in cloud-based or physical servers all the way up to processes, protocols, and training for employees about using and safeguarding the huge amount of data that will be produced.
Making the Most of Big Data
But, more importantly than managing the risks and costs that big data brings, there are a lot of opportunities to improve what companies currently do or create new products and services. The key is to make sure employees can turn all this data into usable information from which they can make better decisions or come up with new ideas.
From many conversations with CIOs and IT leaders from all industries, it’s clear that the ones who are most effective at helping their colleagues make sense of all this data take three important steps.
Make the information usable: Just 50% of employees find information from corporate sources to be in a usable format. To overcome this, some firms offer a choice of analytic tools and show employees how to use information filtering and data visualization techniques.
The IT teams at these firms develop a deeper understanding of how, when, and why information will be used by specific types of employees to make sure they can find the right information at the right time.
Support “big judgment,” not just big data: Even when employees have the information they need in a usable format, they still need the ability to analyze it. It’s worrying then that only 38% of employees are what CEB calls “informed skeptics,” combining analytical skills with judgment to make sound decisions (for more, see this Harvard Business Review piece).
One of the world’s leading consumer goods companies in CEB’s client networks provides its workforce with a range of training courses when it rolled out its new analytical tool. The training focused not just on the functionality of the tool, but also on how employees should interpret the new information formats, and on improving their analytic techniques.
Understand what business partners want to achieve with the information they request: Most IT teams are familiar with projects that involve automating a process, say, where what the line managers or other business partner wants is well defined and doesn’t change over time.
But business partners’ information needs are dependent on the context they’re working in and even the context in which the request is made. This means that what business partners actually want may certainly be poorly articulated or even unknown to themselves. The IT team a big technology company in CEB’s networks uses anthropological techniques to discover business partners’ hidden information needs and to spot opportunities to provide information more efficiently. They do this by observing employees in their own environment and conducting open-ended interviews.