A big data gold rush is upon us. Bosses are looking to tap into their own mountains of data to glean insights that might spur growth. I believe the rewards for getting the formula right may indeed be eye-watering. It's an appealing vision too for the channel, because nothing speaks louder to managers than insights based on hard data, gathered in one's own backyard.
Yet this vision is also a misleading one. It assumes that businesses are in the best possible condition organisationally to make the most of whatever conclusions big data analysis might provide.
Imagine if this analysis found that what the business really needed to do was shelve entire product sets and focus on new opportunities, or close down established segments altogether and concentrate on completely new markets? The consequences of acting on such insights may be severe.
But big data per se is not the whole solution. The most important thing is how people draw on data in their decision making.
The key to a data-driven business is data-driven people. People who can harness analysis and metrics the same way that they use the water-cooler, making data an intrinsic part of business life. The question, therefore, should not be "how much data can I physically analyse?", but "how can I use data to drive better decision-making?".
I think that the facts suggest that companies are far less numbers-driven than their leaders believe. We polled 1,000 white collar workers in large organisations in late 2011. We believe that almost every employee thinks they deal with numbers and data at work more than they did a year ago. However, our survey indicated that only about a quarter have used this data to discover anything new about their business.
Most office workers still rely on so-called gut instinct instead of drawing on business data to back up their decisions. About half of all the employees we surveyed said they have an instinctive feel for how things are going at work. They think that tells them more than data does.
So I believe that businesses need to encourage their employees to become more data-driven. In my view, organisations first need to make it easy, even fun for people to use data in their daily work.
Many people are intimidated by large spreadsheets and long lists of numbers. Providing an easy, more enjoyable way to interact with and navigate around such data would surely help.
Secondly, why not make the analysis portable? The most successful data-driven organisations, in my view, ensure numbers are discussed in some shape or form at every internal meeting. Employees also need to be able to review the latest data wherever they are and whenever they want – not only when the IT department decides the latest report is ready.
This means embracing the wave of consumer-powered IT that is seeping into many businesses. This means letting people use tablets, smartphones and other devices for analysis.
Business intelligence (BI) platforms can keep data secure and help analyse it on the move. This should make it easier to develop new insights that can help the business.
Social media platforms enable social interactions with friends, business associates, or even strangers, enabling collaboration in near-real time. Many businesses are experimenting with social collaboration tools such as Yammer and Lync. Decisions can be more easily made through discussion and collaboration, rather than outsider consultants or analysts. This can inform data and suggest pathways to research.
There is no way a BI strategy based on big data alone could achieve this.
The key to success with business data is to ensure that relevant data finds its way from the boardroom right through to the shop floor. The data used needn't be the product of exhaustive integration and data warehousing exercises; straightforward sales, marketing and supply chain data may incorporate many potential insights.
We've been here before. Customer relationship management (CRM) applications have been an expensive failure for a lot of organisations, because the technology focused on modelling a business process, rather than how to achieve really strong customer experiences.
Similarly, if big data is harnessed correctly, focusing on the relevant data and ensuring employees have the right tools to manipulate the information, that's when you get results. Costly systems may not be needed.
Sean Farrington is managing director UK and Ireland and regional vice president for Northern Europe at QlikTech
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