Big data: Five ways to make your project a success

Big data is a big deal, but how do you get started and get it right? Here's some advice from IT experts working on successful projects.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Organisations are collecting more information than ever before, yet the business is unlikely to be able to make sense of this information unless it finds ways to turn newly found knowledge into game-changing decisions. So, how can CIOs help the rest of the organisation to create true business intelligence? Five IT experts offer five best practice tips.

1. Use start-ups to help unlock the right questions

Enterprise Rent-a-Car European IT director Jeff King agrees that most firms are getting better at producing and storing data. “But not all companies will be able to produce meaningful knowledge and intelligence,” he says. “That’s the big trick that will help organisations to gain a competitive advantage.”

King points to the potential importance of predictive analytics, which he says could help his firm respond in a timely manner to customer requests. Yet he says CIOs often struggle to see beyond the bluster associated with big data. “We'll need to spend more time thinking about how the decisions we're making are actually good decisions in terms of business operations," he says.

King points to the vendor community and says more effort needs to be placed around demonstrating how specific analytical tools can help provide a competitive advantage. He suggests one potential source of ideas is the start-up community.

As CIO for a big European firm, King is eager to see how specialist firms can help his IT department create the intelligence his line-of-business peers need in order to make the right decisions. But there is, he admits, a long way to go. “The business doesn't always know the right questions to ask, so providing significant intelligence remains a challenge for CIOs,” he says.

2. Don't be scared to experiment

Jonathan Everitt, data architect at Camelot Group, says experimentation can pay big dividends for IT leaders who are attempting to turn big data into business intelligence. Everitt is a data specialist who is using his skills to give Camelot’s employees the kind of knowledge that can help improve relationships with customers and retailers.

“Take a control group and break that collection into different cells,” he says. “Work with the business to identify a target, test your theory with a group of customers, and check whether your idea works. It's a very clear activity and it provides measurable big data.”

Everitt uses Infor’s customer relationship management and business intelligence software to measure outbound marketing activity. He says the event-based nature of Camelot’s business means campaigns are crucial. The lottery specialist relaunched its website earlier this year, offering new ways for people to play online via the desktop or mobile devices.

“It’s a cliché but a 360-degree view of your customers is absolutely crucial,” says Everitt. “Whenever you’re interacting with your client base, you must measure and assess whether you’ve met the desired outcomes. Providing business intelligence is an iterative process but understanding what knowledge you’re trying to provide is absolutely necessary.”  (Continued on next page...)

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3. Work with colleagues to outline the challenge

Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks has a question for IT and business leaders: “Do you prefer to start with a blank sheet and create something, or do you like to have a hypothesis to challenge? That is the problem facing organisations looking to step into big data.”

Marks believes many organisations struggle to articulate their need for big data. The end point for business intelligence is often unclear, because line-of-business managers are unaware of the power of great information to improve decision-making processes.

The good news, says Marks, is that the office of the CIO has become much better at helping internal customers to define requirements. “The CIO is well placed to sift through the big data products of vendors and to hunt for the proverbial use-case 'needle in the haystack',” he says.

“Once identified, the CIO can test the idea with colleagues. He or she can refine the potential business problem and associated value, and can lead the internal customer to a hypothesis. And if all the answers seem favourable, the business case and actual requirement should fall out of big data.”

4. Work with the chief data officer to help the business grow

Jon Cooke, a member of cross-industry body the Data Innovation Working Group, says strong executive partnerships and rich data visualisations are the key to gaining a competitive advantage from big data. “To make game-changing decisions you must align and normalise data before using agile tools to derive meaning,” he says.

“CIOs and the CDOs need to be able to work together in order to extract the benefits out of the data, to not only improve the efficiency of a business but also to help one grow. You can’t manage what you can’t measure and this capability is a key benefit of CIOs and CDOs.”

Cooke, who is also head of data science practice at GFT, says the role of the CIO is to place the customer at the centre of the information gathering process. He also encourages interviews with key stakeholders and a competitive landscape analysis, in order to match big data projects with long-term business objectives.

IT leaders, says Cooke, should then work to break down silos of data storage within specific organisational departments. “To create true intelligence, it is crucial that CIOs can track the lifecycle of data across the entire business and present it to different users,” he says.

5. Learn lessons and plan for the future

Businesses looking to make the most of big data should take lessons from IT implementations in related areas of the business, says Jonathan Pilbrow, financial controller at car dealership network TrustFord. His firm used Infor’s enterprise software to create a consolidated set of accounts, and then used that consistent information to create a platform for big data.

“The exciting part is business intelligence,” says Pilbrow. “We started thinking about making the most of information in 2010. Now, we’ve got 19 reports that we deliver to the business on a daily basis. We’ve given our key sales people the ability to see what’s happened in particular areas and why.”

Pilbrow is currently working on the next stage of business intelligence for the business and is delivering a dashboard that will help senior executives understand trends and likely developments across the business. “You need a good understanding of business requirements before you start,” he says to IT leaders who are keen to make the most of big data.

“Our team has a lot of knowledge but I’d advise other people not to jump in feet first. Plan your structure and think carefully about what knowledge your end users actually need. Have a proper, robust plan and a roadmap for business intelligence going forwards. No single person knows every answer but you can help people make great decisions from big data by getting senior people involved in your plans as early as possible.”

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