How do you solve a problem like big data?

By Emma Honeybone, Head of Marketing at Transform UK

Ask a bunch of digital leaders about the role of data and in a nutshell they’ll tell you it helps them to better understand customers. Ask about the challenges of data and you’ll hear everything from, “We have so much data we don’t know what to do with it!” to “Our data is held in different places across the business with no single owner and no easy way to access it.”

What’s the reason for this? Why do meaningful data insights continue to be much sought after and elusive? Why are organisations unable to address these challenges and overcome them to achieve real benefits from the data they hold?

Earlier this week, in partnership with Princedale Partners, we co-hosted another of our breakfasts at The Wolseley with digital leaders from John Lewis, Unilever, Barclays, HSBC, Boots, the BBC and 31 Dover joining us to discuss these questions.

No more big data

The first consensus of opinion was around the term ‘Big Data’. The general feeling was that by describing it in this way the challenge becomes elevated and makes an assumption that all benefits will be significant. The result is often that organisations try to ‘boil the ocean’ and get nowhere. One leader told us “We’ve banned the phrase big data in our business. Instead we talk about smart data, connected data.” This organisation looks at building its data capability in stepping-stones, embracing the approach that it’s better to have small data you can use, than big data you can’t; a common view around the table. Plus given the fact that more data has been created in the last 2 years than in the entire history of the human race and yet it’s estimated that most organisations use less than 20% of the data they store, it’s understandable why Big Data has had a bad press.

It’s time to sweat the small stuff

When it comes to turning all that data you’re awash with into something tangible — small and nimble is most definitely beautiful. Not small in ambition but instead thinking about how to tackle it with some agility in a way that makes it easily accessible to provide valuable insight and create an opportunity for action. For many businesses, this will require a step change in their attitude to success. A fail fast culture that tries and tests bite-sized data projects can pave the way to informative data much more quickly than a long-term plan for using every single bit you’ve ever collected.

Data advocacy at board level

For most businesses data resides in multiple locations across the organisation, frequently in unusable formats — like batch data — and there can be a lack of understanding at board level about what it really means to be smart with data. With stories of board members who’ve never shopped online and have little or no appreciation for the world most of us live in, securing advocacy and the support that accompanies this, is virtually impossible. Several of the digital leaders at our breakfast did however share stories of board members listening to their kids and other leaders. A possible tactic to be adopted for those struggling with this as an issue!

The flip side of the uneducated leader is the data zealot. That C-suite individual who is constantly dazzled by bright and shiny things — asking that the rest of the business get behind the latest trend to the detriment of those less shiny areas that can add real value.

GDPR — a catalyst for change?

By June 2018, organisations have to be compliant with the long awaited General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The way customer data and other personal data is handled could result in a fine of up to 4% of global turnover if a breach occurs.

Some of our digital leaders see this is a great catalyst to drive change, supporting a desire to demonstrate the value they can offer to customers in return for having access to their data. They recognise that if they don’t prove this value the customer is likely to withdraw that privilege. Maybe we’ll finally see data used to build models that deliver services like predicting personal or business cash flow. Analysis that allows our bank to forecast when we are likely to go overdrawn and proactively ask permission to transfer money from our savings account in order to prevent charges being applied. Or retailers using location based data to tell us if a product that we’re looking at online is available to view in our nearest store.

Being smart about data

As our breakfast drew to a close, conversation turned to what effective action should look like if we want to maximise the potential of data estates:

  • Recognise it’s about quality, not quantity — having the right data far outweighs having lots of data
  • Build a data-driven mind-set in the organisation to frame the pertinent questions and define the data needed to answer them
  • Build a commercially astute, business aligned, data science and analysis capability
  • Underpin this with agile technology to support a test and learn approach
  • Provide all levels of management and key workers with access to the data they need
  • And finally, don’t forget the culture. Embedding data so it’s sustainable will require a culture change to make sure it becomes part of the business’ DNA

Data has long been an important aspect of the corporate strategy but now more than ever because of the speed of change, the increased complexity of the businesses we operate, and the opportunity to gain significant data insights due to advances in technology and falling prices.

Those leaders that recognise this and choose to act swiftly and effectively will take a lead in their market. It’s time to stop talking about big data and start viewing this asset in a smarter way.