Avoid big data disaster: The secret of turning data into useful information

Too many companies still collect data for the sake of it, but a focus on collaboration and analytics can turn your organisation’s information into a competitive edge.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Businesses might be collecting more data than ever before but many firms still don't know what to do with it.

As consulting firm McKinsey suggests, the process of actually deriving meaningful insight from that information – and converting that knowledge into action – is easier said than done. 

SEE: 60 ways to get the most value from your big data initiatives (free PDF)

Two in three companies (65%) are unable to analyse all the data they collect, according to the Data Security Confidence Index from digital security specialist Gemalto. Tech analyst Forrester, meanwhile, reports that between 60% and 73% of all data within an enterprise goes unused for analytics.

So how can companies make the most of the data they collect? Three digital leaders give their best-practice tips for turning interesting information into meaningful insight.

Bring your experts together to create a 360-degree view of your customers

Helen Hunter, group chief data officer (CDO) at supermarket giant Sainsbury's, says her firm holds a "mind-blowing" amount of data and she's focused on helping her colleagues to quickly, easily and cheaply distribute accurate information. Yet she says, not unusually for a large enterprise, data at the retail giant tends to be locked into business function or brands.

"We are trying to change that and we want to democratise data," says Hunter, who became the firm's CDO last April. "We are constantly asking questions about how we can put our data to work to address the biggest opportunities in our organisation: how can we change the way we operate, to better serve customers, and change the way decisions are made?"

Hunter, who spoke at the recent EARL Conference in London, says a key element in this data-democratisation process is the recently launched Sainsbury's Tech division. This organisation brings together for the first time technologists that have historically been tied to one of the firm's individual brands, such as its supermarket chain, Habitat, Argos and Sainsbury's Bank.

"We've brought together all our technologists in one division to provide a multi-channel, multi-brand capability that's necessary to serve our customers in this digital age," says Hunter. "It's important to do that because we want to be able to see the customer from 360 degrees, regardless of the brand or the channel that they choose to use."

Hunter says realising that 360-degree vision relies on three strategic elements: first, making access to data ubiquitous; second, supporting employees, so that they can use data to become more knowledgeable; and third, reducing human decision-making across complex business operations. She says taking a strategic approach across these three elements will help Sainsbury's take advantage of its information.

"We've started the hard yards of making this data available, useful and conceivable by everyone, not just the few," says Hunter. "If we're going to know our customers better and anticipate their needs, it means we need to be so much better than we are today at prediction. And it means we need to be so much better than we are today at optimising the decisions we make."

Create a data-driven mindset across your organisation

Trainline CTO Mark Holt is another digital leader who recognises the scale of the data-collection process within his own organisation and the opportunity of using this treasure trove of information to steal a competitive advantage on his rivals.

"We have a huge data store – and I often believe the firm with the most data is the one that's most likely to win. We want to use this data asset to help us build more products for our customers," he says.

While the aim of creating a data-driven organisation is laudable, Harvard Business Review suggests many leading corporations often fail in their efforts to become data-driven. It quotes evidence from NewVantage Partners' 2019 Big Data and AI Executive Survey, which states 69% of C-level executives admit they have not created a data-driven organisation.

The good news for Trainline is that the firm has already placed data at the heart of its business. Its data-led developments help rail and coach passengers make more than 172,000 smarter journeys daily.

SEE: Can a smarter app get you out of your car and onto a train instead?

The Trainline app includes a range of features that exploit real-time data. A price-prediction tool analyses historical trends and suggests the most economical time to book tickets, while a rail journey planner helps customers find cheaper journeys. BusyBot, meanwhile, crowdsources data from thousands of passengers to provide information on seat availability.

Holt looks back on the cultural transformation he has led at Trainline during the past five years and suggests the key to strategic success is creating a data-driven mindset, not just within the IT department, but out across the wider organisation. He says companies that possess people who understand the power of information will be able to make smarter business decisions that create benefits for the organisation and its customers.

"You need to constantly ask people 'what does the data say?' It's very easy to get dragged into a debate that is entirely based on gut feel and hypothesis. Rather than saying, 'we should do this or we should do that,' we should be looking at what the data actually says. If the data tells you that only 1% of your people use a service, then let's stop the discussion," says Holt.

Invest in business intelligence and analytics to help people engage

Hugo Mathias, CIO at Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust, says IT chiefs looking to make the most of the information they collect must go beyond data lakes and data warehouses and think about how the insight they create will be served and consumed by people around the organisation.

"You've got to have visualisations and business intelligence tools, and you've got to have the means to make information exciting and sexy. Because if you can't make it engaging, then you just have data," says Mathias.

Cross-business engagement on data is a big problem for CIOs according to Gartner, with as many as 87% of organisations having low business intelligence (BI) and analytics maturity. The analyst says this low maturity creates a huge obstacle for organisations that want to exploit both their existing data assets and emerging analytics technologies, such as machine learning.

Mathias says CIOs who fail to develop analytical maturity within their own IT teams will not be able to pass the benefits of data onto the rest of the business. His aim is to turn information into insight – and he says the smart use of BI and analytics can help engage end-users and ensure columns of data are turned into something much more meaningful.

"What you create has got to be useful, rather than interesting. We want to help people to do their jobs better," he says. "And if you do that, then they'll think the work you're doing as an IT team on big data is amazing because they won't have to focus on mundane operational challenges anymore that used to take up a lot of their time."

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