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Big data - Harnessing a game-changing asset

May 22, 2012View for printing

The speed with which data reach organizations, the variety of their form and the insights they contain are completely changing everything we have known about the collection, analysis and management of data. These changes represent the dawn of a new era of "Big Data", an era in which the sheer volume of data, and data about data (or metadata), can reveal profound truths about the way the world works, about how disease is spread, about how financial crises can be avoided and, of course, about how businesses can better compete. New data are produced every day, generated by mobile phones, global positioning satellites and social networking sites. And each time new kinds of data are born, so too are opportunities to learn from them, combine them with existing data and create new insights. By far the most difficult process right now is reconciling disparate data sources.


"We don't want our physicians to be exclusively responsible for quality. We want quality to be measured by the team. So we are looking at monitoring variation around processes and driving out waste and supporting better care by developing a management system and partnership with the medical staff." Dr Jim LaBelle, corporate vice-president of quality, medical management and physician comanagement at Scripps Health, the San Diego-based health system that includes 5 hospitals, 2,600 physicians and more than 13,000 employees.


Strategically, operationally and culturally, companies need to reconsider their entire approach to data management, and make important decisions about which data they choose to use, and how they choose to use them.

Economist Intelligence Unit research indicates that most businesses have made slow progress in extracting value from big data. And some companies attempt to use traditional data management practices on big data, only to learn that the old rules no longer apply.

One of the most startling realizations, however, is that the era of big data has only just begun. The amount of data produced continues to accelerate, even as businesses large and small struggle to update their practices. There is still much to learn. But for those companies that combine a long view with advanced data management practices and cultural change, there is an opportunity to put some distance between them and their competition.


"An executive commitment is necessary if you are to have the rigour to define, capture and deploy data effectively. Bottom up may not necessarily work." Stan Lepeak, Director, Global Research Shared Services and Outsourcing Practice, KPMG


There is a strong link between effective data management strategy and financial performance.

-- These businesses understand the potential of big data and are already leveraging their data to their competitive advantage, applying them to strategy development, product direction, market development and operational efficiency.

Extracting value from big data remains elusive for many organizations.

-- Organizations are still learning how to manage big data.

Many companies struggle with the most basic aspects of data management, such as cleaning, verifying or reconciling data across the organization.

-- "Data will not answer questions by themselves."

Companies that are furthest along the data management competency continuum--strategic data managers--provide a useful model for how organisations will need to evolve if they are to extract and utilise valuable data-driven insights.

-- Strategic data managers use data to fi rst identify specific measurements and data points that align closely with corporate strategic goals. They select the most appropriate data to make decisions, and put a high percentage of the data they collect to use. They are also more likely to assign a C-level executive to manage data strategy, and they continue to explore emerging sources of data for potential value.

Big data is changing the way companies of all sizes, in all industries, go about their business. From the way they understand their markets, to how they mine information about their own operations, big data is unlocking insight at every turn. It has become an industry in and of itself, spawning new businesses dedicated to enabling the collection and analysis of big data. And its transformative effects on existing companies have been dramatic. When the Economist Intelligence Unit asked survey respondents to describe the impact data has had on their organization over the past five years, nearly 10% said it had completely changed the way they do business. Forty-six percent of respondents said it had become an important factor that drives business decisions.

There is no reason to think these trends will not continue. Of course, big data will always be but one of the tools that companies use to inform decisions. But it is an increasingly critical part of that portfolio.

And companies that fail to develop a competency around it are likely to be left behind.

Fortunately, the science of extracting insight from data is constantly evolving. Tools are more readily available as industries begin to invest in the technology that supports big data. And as the competency levels of firms continue to move along the big data continuum, increasing value will be realized.

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