Management Still Needs to be Educated on ‘Big Data’

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, recently observed that most mainstream business executives are having trouble getting their heads around the utility of “Big Data.” As he put it, many executives have troubling making the connection between vast stores of information and business value: “Executives evinced little enthusiasm for 100X more customer data was that they couldn’t envision or align it with a desirable business outcome. Would offering 1000X or 10,000X more data been more persuasive? Hardly. Neither the quantity nor quality of data was the issue. What matters is how — and why — vastly more data leads to vastly greater value creation.”

A new survey from CompTIA – a tech industry association – validates Schrage’s observations. Executives don’t quite know what it is, and they don’t know where to apply it. But they sense it’s something important that they need to press forward with. The survey of 500 businesses finds low levels of familiarity – only 37% of IT and business executives report being very familiar or mostly familiar with the concept of Big Data. Approximately one in five organizations, 19%, claim to have a big data initiative underway, while 36% plan to embark on one in the next 12 months. Theses adoption numbers may even be lower than the survey says, the survey’s authors admit: “Because of the varying opinions on what constitutes big data (extreme volumes, velocities and varieties of data could be viewed as relative), it’s likely some participants in the research reported a big data initiative that others may have classified as a standard analytics initiative.”

The challenge, as underscored by the survey, is that many organizations are still struggling with basic data management and analysis concerns. In fact, the study finds only six percent of companies report “being exactly where they want to be in managing and using data.” Even when including those ‘very close’ to their target, it still leaves a majority of businesses with significant work to do on the data front. Yet, two-thirds agree or strongly agree with the statement “if we could harness all of our data, we would be a much stronger business.”

The research also suggests many business and IT executives haven’t fully ‘connected the dots’ between developing and implementing a data strategy and its affect on other business objectives, such as improving staff productivity, or developing more effective ways to engage with customers. Nearly three in four companies report a high or moderately high degree of data silos within their organization, making it difficult to view data holistically, the study also finds. Many do not have a complete or accurate understanding of their data profile, especially as it relates to unstructured data, such as audio and video files and social streams of data.

The survey also addressed mechanisms required to manage, process and make sense of both structured and unstructured data. When asked about areas for improvement, respondents mentioned real-time analysis of incoming data, email marketing campaign effectiveness assessments, customer profiling and predictive analytics and forecasting at the highest rates.

Addressing skills and competency gaps is another area widely recognized as needed to move forward with Big Data. The survey finds that 59% of respondents want to either start or improve upon their capabilities in detecting patterns in their data, while 67% want to do the same with relationship analytics, such as understanding how variables are correlated. Slightly more than half of companies (53%) plan to invest in training to further develop the skills of current employees. Thirty-two percent expect to explore hiring options to add new staff with the desire expertise.

Additional key areas where companies what to further develop skills and capabilities include strategic planning and developing long-term roadmaps for data, storage and related areas (51%), business continuity and disaster recovery (45%), regulatory compliance and best practices related to data retention, encryption, etc. (28%), and , and cloud-based data storage (27%).

Ultimately, Schrage says, the ability to embrace Big Data to advance the organization requires greater executive awareness and understanding of its potential – and not seen as just another complicated initiative for the technology department to handle. “The most effective big data implementations are engineered from the desired business outcomes in, rather than the humongous data sets out. Too many executives are too impressed — or too intimidated — by the bigness of the data to rethink or revisit how their organizations really add value. They fear the size of the opportunity isn’t worth the risk. In that regard, managing big data — and the ambitious algorithms that run them — is not unlike managing top talent. What compromises, accommodations and judgment calls will you consider to make them all work well together?”

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