From big data to big insights

Big data is here – the future is bright and coming at a million miles an hour to a PC near you. Be excited, be very excited. Alternatively, big data is here and you haven’t got the tools or skills to deal with it – be afraid, be very afraid. Which of these scenarios is playing out in your organisation?

Firstly, what is “big data” that everyone is talking about? What we really mean is a lot of separate and instantaneous data streams that we can tap into to drive informed decision-making. The attractiveness of bringing together multiple pieces of information that have traditionally been disconnected and then being able to obtain a deeper understanding of issues virtually on the fly is what has everyone excited – or panicked, depending on where you sit.

Now let’s critique this concept for a moment. There are many organisations that have brought together data streams, not necessarily in a dynamic way as suggested by big data, but they have attempted to use multiple data sources to drive KPI dashboards and systems. As we‘re not having to deal with the complexity of big data, we would expect that this type of information should be easier to analyse. The issue is that companies struggle to do this. Why is it then that if companies are struggling to extract meaning and insight from the former, they should be any better at extracting it from the latter?

Many who are writing about big data are looking at it from a databasing and reporting aspect – fancy reporting, but basically putting various data streams into single repositories and then insisting that the “analytical tools” will then be used on this data to inform decision-makers of what they should be doing. Sounds great doesn’t it? The issue is that analytic modelling is a very blunt tool when it comes to business decision-making.

So what should companies be doing? Well, the approach is simple really – ask the right questions from the oracle that is big data. Decision-making is based around having information to answer the problem quickly and easily. Yes – dashboard reporting is great and gives access to information, but usually it doesn’t answer questions. The questions we ask shape how we approach big data – with small sips, rather than drowning in the torrent. Strategic and tactical question setting can’t be done by fancy analytics, they require a different skill set that requires knowledge of a business and the ability to chunk this down into specific information needs on which to move forward.

So rather than more data, it’s actually about less data – but the right data. We need to be less worried about the big data flow than we do about having the right questions and understanding how to approach the flow of data to obtain something meaningful. It’s not about data driven tools, it’s about specific business question framing that can’t be directed at information streams. This is how big data moves to big insight.

So for all the companies snapping up analytics firms out there, ensure you have the consulting skills to frame the right questions and help your clients, or you’re in danger of missing the boat and drowning in big data.


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