Big data is the key to everything. Here are four ways to improve how you use it

Companies with a strong awareness of customer trends and business priorities have been able to stay competitive during a challenging year. Now CIOs must use data and digital technologies to grow their businesses.

The past year has been a sharp reminder to CIOs about the importance of data. At a time of crisis, companies with a tight grip on their treasure trove of information were able to embrace digital transformation quicker than others.

CIOs with a strong awareness of customer trends and preferences could shift their business models effectively, such as embracing ecommerce, delivering online learning and exploring new markets. What's more, with the use of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) on the rise, analyst Gartner says the demand to do more with data will only increase.

SEE: Guide to Becoming a Digital Transformation Champion (TechRepublic Premium)

So how can CIOs help their business to make the most of their information in the post-COVID age? Four digital leaders give their best-practice tips.

1. Focus first on the unglamorous part of big data

Nitin Chaturvedi, chief digital and technology officer at KFC Global, says that there are two key elements to data: the exciting part, which might include technologies like AI, VR and IoT, and the less exciting part, which includes infrastructures and standards.

While most companies want to focus on the exciting bits, it's the infrastructure that matters. "I think it's almost like a bamboo tree; unless your roots are strong, your tree won't shoot up 90 feet. So for me, the focus on roots is super important," he says.

When the foundation is right, you can then start to explore some of the interesting elements of data. During the past 12 months, for example, KFC has strengthened its own digital channels in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Traffic to the web app increased significantly through 2020 as click-and-collect and curb-side pick-up became more popular.

Chaturvedi says many of these innovations are likely to remain important in the post-COVID age. He says CIOs making explorations into new digital areas must ensure data use is integrated to create a consistent, single view of customers.

"They you need to think about how you integrate data across all these different touchpoints with the consumer, because the touchpoints have proliferated to build a better view of the consumer. And to serve them better, you need to integrate data across all of them," says Chaturvedi.

2. Use real-time data to make tough decisions easier

Daniel Duran, CIO at global drinks giant Concha y Toro, says that while his company's wine-making processes are rooted in 150 years of tradition, the future success of the business is closely tied to the real-time exploitation of data.

"When the grape is cut from the vineyard, you don't have much time to make the fermentation process because the grape is degrading in the truck. So we have to move fast," he says.

With brands such as Casillero del Diablo and Don Melchor, Concha y Toro operates in over 140 countries, making it one of the biggest wine companies in the world. Data is especially important at harvest time, when the company brings trucks with grapes from different parts of Chile to its wineries.

"We monitor how many tonnes of distinct varieties of grapes we are sending to the different wineries. We have monitored this for a couple of years daily to understand how many tonnes have arrived at each winery. Now, we are able to do this on an hourly basis," says Duran.

Concha y Toro processes huge amounts of data on its Pure Storage technology platform. The insight the company creates enables employees to make smarter decisions. Duran says if there's a problem at a winery, for example, employees are able to tell a truck driver to change their route and head to another destination.

"In terms of information, we understand that every improvement we make helps to create a better process," he says, suggesting that CIOs must focus on processing information as quickly as possible. "If every employee has the information in close to real time, we believe that employees will make a better decision than if they are given that information later."

3. Do the legwork to integrate different data sources

Warren Breakstone, managing director and chief product officer for data management solutions at S&P Global Market Intelligence, is focused on how his firm can provide useful insight to its clients. He says one of the key elements to big data success is integration.

"One of the first things that we do is we recognise that decisions are rarely made with discrete data; decisions are made with the convergence or integration of data. Our clients apply their own value-add, experience and analytics to make a decision," he says.

S&P Global Market Intelligence provides real-time data to a range of companies. Breakstone says the firm's clients range from investment management companies to insurance firms and onto blue-chip corporates that want to use data to develop new business models to compete with disruptive upstarts.

The organisation has developed a partnership with technology firm Snowflake to deliver datasets to finance clients through its cloud-hosted environment. Breakstone says tech leaders who want to develop valuable insight across multiple sources in the future must ensure that their information is accessible in a joined-up manner.

"When we think about integration, first and foremost we think about the integration of our data – how we link disparate data sets together, so that clients can get additional value by using that data. If you're a consumer of one of our data sets, and you're now interested in a second data set, we've already done the hard work and linked the two data sets," he says.

"So when you add that second data set, your ability to get value out of that second one is accelerated, because we've already done the work to link it for you. So it's all about how we define integration – and, from a data perspective, that's central."

4. Focus on exploiting data safely and securely

Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council, says the route to great customer-facing services in future is bound to include the exploitation of big data.

"It's using the business intelligence and the data to help us be more effective and efficient," he says. "There will always be a group of residents who require intensive support from us. So we need to do all the tech stuff really smoothly so we can focus the council's resources on helping people."

Gannon recognises that big data has proven its value during the past 12 months. By working alongside counterparts in other public sector organisations, he now wants to combine public data sources and create new insight into some of Sheffield's most-pressing health and wellbeing issues: "Two years from now, I think digital services will be part and parcel of everything."

SEE: Analytics: Turning big data science into business strategy (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

However, Gannon also recognises that using data to respond quickly and effectively to a fast-moving pandemic has led to new ways of working. As economies emerge from lockdown and major organisations look to create new data-led services, CIOs in all organisations will have to focus first and foremost on ensuring data remains safe and secure.

"I think data is a big issue for CIOs, particularly when it comes to data quality. With COVID, people have had to very quickly move to remote working, so I do worry about data loss and data leakage," he says.

"When we get back to some kind of normality, whatever that might be, we'll need to think about where is that data; how do we get our hands around it. I think that's not just an issue for me, I think that's an issue for all CIOs."