Bright North: Busting the big data myths

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A backlash against ‘big data’ has led to questions about whether it is overrated, but Bright North’s Rob Hick believes it does offer opportunities and provides pointers on how to make the most of them.

Rob Hick
Bright North

You would be forgiven for thinking that the ‘big data’ era has been with us for at least a decade, but in reality, it has been little more than half of that. However, in that short space of time, big data’s strongest advocates have elevated its capabilities to a point where it is now considered the answer to almost every business problem. Furthermore, if you are not already on the big data bandwagon, you are lagging behind your competitors and your business is likely to suffer. Or so the narrative goes.

But in recent months a backlash has begun. Big data’s poster child application, Google Flu Trends, has been publicly ousted from that role following an over-prediction of flu prevalence for 100 out of 108 weeks since August 2011, according to an article in Science magazine. And this has since been supplemented by a flurry of articles explaining in detail why big data isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.

So is big data a silver bullet or a modern day myth? Many of you will have already invested
in your big data toolkit and are starting to see the benefits; others are wondering whether it will really make sufficient impact on your business to warrant the costs. Regardless of what stage you are at in your data journey, there are steps all businesses can take to make the most of the wealth of big data opportunities that exist.

Much of my time is spent meeting clients and talking to them about big data, small data and everything in between. A consistent learning from these meetings is the disparity between companies in their commitment to using data to inform company strategy and decision-making. At one end of the scale, there are those that have embraced big data and are starting to exploit the insights it can produce. But the vast majority are still working out how to make the most of the data they already have.

More often than not, the companies that are starting to reap the big data benefits are those that were already heavy users of data. Their big data ventures represent the latest frontier in the way they use data, rather than being the first step they take. But what happens if your company isn’t already experienced in using data? Companies at the beginning of their data journey need not despair; you can get up to speed by learning from those that have already made their mistakes and whose big data is now starting to pay dividends throughout their business. By identifying the key elements that make other big data projects successful and the pitfalls to avoid, you can fast-track your understanding of the opportunities and how to make your data work for you.

Bright North Busting big data
By making a main business challenge the focus of a data project, companies will learn how to engage with data in the future

Fundamentally, success is driven not by the technology, but by business leaders engaging with the data they are collecting and the insights it produces. This requires more than a good intention, it requires a commitment on the part of business decision-makers to work towards a culture that is driven by data.

What is it that these companies are doing differently? Or rather, what have they been doing differently? Every business learns, fails and succeeds through the outcomes of the decisions they make; whether they are strategically focused on where to point the commercial strategy, or tactically on where to spend the operations budget, for example. Traditionally, those decisions have had to be primarily based on instinct, gut feeling and past experience, and as such relied heavily on the expertise of the individuals or groups involved. But those decisions can now be vastly improved and almost always accelerated by using data to inform the different options available. Companies with a mature data strategy know what data to use and where to augment their expertise by asking the right questions of the data and, critically, understanding how they are going to use the answers. 

The most important facet of a data strategy, therefore, is the questions behind it that can be answered to help solve your core business issues. Viewing big data simply as an IT implementation will almost certainly lead to failure. While big data can act as an incredibly powerful engine to move your ship along, without the captain and the bridge to make crucial decisions and steer it in the right direction, that engine is next to useless. 

How to make the most of your big data opportunities: 

1. Start by identifying the key challenges in your business which, once solved, will have a noticeable impact on your systems, department or business. Whether these are strategic or tactical, pinpointing the key business issues that keep you awake at night is the best way to get your data working
for you.

2. Use these as a starting block to establish the questions you need to be asking of your data that will help to address the business issues you have identified. What further information needs to be gathered, analysed, or even discounted in order for you to get a clearer picture of the challenge in order to tackle it?

3. Work towards developing a data-driven culture within your business that inspires more informed decision-making that is grounded in data rather than gut feeling.

Start the next phase of your exploration by looking at the areas of your business where the options you have available, or the decisions you need to make, are unclear; whether it is a marketing strategy that needs to target high potential customers, or an operations budget that is being undercut by the competition. Whatever your main business challenge might be, make that the focus of your data project and execute a data strategy that best supports that single focus. In doing that, you will learn a lot about how your company is likely to engage with data in future projects.

Is big data a silver bullet? Put simply, no. But data in all its forms represents a better-informed and more progressive way of doing business, seeing options clearly and making strategic decisions with objective facts rather than solely relying on instinct. Some parts of that data strategy have been around for a long time, while other are new and trendy. So by all means jump in the big data pool with both feet, but make sure you know in which direction you are heading before you do.

Bright North helps organisations take advantage of the opportunities that big data can offer. Whether you are already aware of these opportunities or just starting out on your data journey, our blend of design, data science and software development can help you steer clear of big data pitfalls to deliver dramatic increases in your business.

Rob Hick

Chief data scientist 
Bright North

1st floor
33-34 Alfred Place
London
WC1E 7DP

T: 020 3598 2217
E: hello@brightnorth.co.uk
W: www.brightnorth.co.uk

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