Big data: Three ways to make your project a success

Getting big data right is about much more than technology: these tips could help you set the right path.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

"Big data is called big for a reason -- there's lots of it, so IT leaders have got to proceed with care," says cybersecurity consultant Tim Holman.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Big data might be a term that is beloved by marketing folk but it is starting to lose its lustre at an executive level. Analysts Gartner says just 11 per cent of executives describe their investments in big data as being as important, or more important, than other IT initiatives -- and 46 per cent believe they are less important.

Too many big data projects are built with ad-hoc technologies in mind, rather than production-level reliability, the analysts warn. But big data, despite the marketing hype, still matters: a tight grip on information can help organisations create competitive differentiation. And CIOs can be key to helping organisations turn big data into business insight.

1. Get governance and security right first time

Information security is a core concern for businesses looking to invest in big data. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is due to come into force on 25 May 2018 and will see companies fined up to 4 per cent of their global turnover for breaches. IT leaders looking to assure c-suite peers about the importance of big data must pay attention to policies and procedures.

Camden Council interim CIO Omid Shiraji says managers within his team are thinking carefully about what GDPR means for the organisation itself and the citizens it serves. The key, says Shiraji, is to ensure that GDPR acts as a mechanism to support change, rather than as an additional layer of bureaucracy.

"I want to minimise the impact on our ability to do things," he says. "Regulations can often be security-first rather than customer-first. There are principles in GDPR that we have to adopt, but we also have to figure out how to make the rules work for our citizens. And there isn't much time for CIOs and their organisations to work out how to make the most of GDPR."

It is sentiment that resonates with Tim Holman, chief executive and founder of cybersecurity consultancy 2-sec. He says CIOs must focus on data governance and GDPR as a matter of urgency. "Big data is called big for a reason -- there's lots of it, so IT leaders have got to proceed with care," he says.

"The industry is predicting an exponential increase in the storage of data, far beyond the point of anyone being able to sensibly use and secure it. Whilst statistical analysis of big data can be great for businesses and help them work out trends and where they should be next, any impact on the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data can be disastrous."

2. Make data central to your business strategy

Interim CIO Christian McMahon, who is managing director at transformation specialist three25, says too many firms still ignore the power of the information they hold. "I have always believed big data is useless until you have the tools or knowledge to find strategic or operational nuggets within it," he says.

McMahon says CIOs need to encourage their firms to take a different approach to architecture and engineering, such as using the cloud to reach wider audiences and having on-demand access to processing power. This requirement will also drive the need for new and different skill sets, such as data science.

"The good news for CIOs is that those who are brave and embrace this approach will re-energise their data strategy," says McMahon. "Thinking in this way makes your business look more proactive, but also leads to the creation of more meaningful and engaging products and services for customers."

Chris White, CIO at global law firm Clyde & Co, is one IT leader who is already taking a proactive stance to data strategy. His firm is moving to the stage where case management reports are generated automatically. "The clients can come in whenever they want and look at those reports in real time," he says.

"Big data for us is crucial and will become increasingly important to our business," he says. "We need to focus on how we use management information to improve our service to our clients. We must think about how we make the most of the intelligence we own in order to add value for our customers."

3. Lead big-data projects from the front

Rob Harding, CIO at finance firm Capital One, says his firm is able to benefit from access to a 30-strong data science team in the UK. These highly talented individuals can help his business use big data to create a strategic difference. However, strong leadership from Harding is crucial to this success.

"Big data for me is about how I help the data science group within the business work to the best of its ability," he says. "Big data is not about collecting a huge lake of information; it's actually about creating something through which our specialists can easily analyse data and generate actionable insight."

Harding says a large number of c-suite executives remain worried by shadow IT, particularly when it comes to using big data. "But I don't worry about that -- all I know is there's some people that want to get some stuff done and I need to help them," he says. "A lot of the work that I have to do as a CIO is about how I best serve our data scientists and set them up for success."

Many of the firm's data scientists, says Harding, are expert developers. These workers can tap into a potentially huge amount of tools. Capital One, for example, ran a prototype for underwriting and credit risk management on a Hadoop platform.

"We got some incredible time-to-market gains from that work in terms of cycling through big computational work," he says. The firm is always ready to embrace new tools and is currently investigating Amazon's Redshift product. Harding is helping the data science team to assess the tool's value.

"Success in big data is about constantly listening to people that are working in our data science team, scanning the market so that we can make the best use of the technology that's out there and inventing some of our own tools," he says.

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