Big data's big problem: How to make it work in the real world

There aren't enough big data success stories to justify the hype. Here's what companies need to rethink, according to the experts.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
"Even in a world of big data, there aren't really enough examples of firms who have taken ownership of data," says Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks.
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Suspicion about the value of big data is high. The phrase, which has become the accepted marketing shorthand for a range of tools and technologies, has started to creak under the weight of unrealistic expectations.

It does not help when so-called experts suggest that an information revolution is changing - and will continue to change - the nature of the workplace and work itself. Big data projects can have a transformative affect on business operations and processes. Yet evidence of a knowledge-led revolt in the offices of global blue chips is thin on the ground: instead large organisations seem to be drowning under a sea of information.

So how can organisations create insight from intelligence and how can CIOs encourage the rest of the business to buy into big data projects?

Defining the role of the IT leader in an age of data

Throughout his professional career, former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks has seen a broad range of business intelligence initiatives. He believes many projects rely on a type of analysis that is, at best, simple. "Even in a world of big data, there aren't really enough examples of firms who have taken ownership of data," says Marks.

He believes the IT leader can play a crucial role in terms of identifying and providing big data tools. Yet he also believes too much emphasis is now placed on CIOs, especially in regards to making the most of knowledge. The creation of true insight from business intelligence, says Marks, must be a joint effort.

"The technology exists to do some amazing things with data, especially in relation to bringing together knowledge from what looks like unrelated areas of the business. People in HR and finance want IT to use big data tools to analyse and present information. They are looking to the CIO and their team for the lead. Many executives still think that's the CIO's responsibility," he says.

"The problem, however, is that CIOs aren't equipped or mandated to manipulate the data. At the same time, the business does not necessarily have the skills to articulate what kinds of insight it wants from the data. What you're left with is a skills gap, as most IT leaders don't want - or can't afford - to just focus on data science on a day-to-day basis."

Marks says businesses should spend time assessing what type of insight will help make a difference in terms of outcomes. CIOs and their c-suite counterparts must focus on the core aims of the business. "Concentrate on the areas that can provide a competitive advantage and develop those skills within your organisation," he says.

Mark Foulsham, group CIO at insurance specialist esure, is another IT leader who believes that value from big data comes from an integrated approach. He says analytical tools can help his business to understand how customers use online channels, such as statistics for web use volumes and stickiness. That knowledge can be invaluable when other line-of-business executive, such as those in the marketing department, attempt to create a deeper insight into customer experience.

"If the marketing teams want to know when a customer is dropping out, they need the right technology - and that's where the IT team can assist them," says Foulsham. "The marketing guys can look at the issue from a customer experience perspective and the IT organisation can come from a performance perspective, and create really great diagnostic tools to help compliment the business insight."

Best practice evidence for overcoming worker resistance

Yodel CIO Adam Gerrard says IT leaders looking to gain real insight from big data must take a two-pronged attack that is both 'top down' and 'bottom up'. From a boardroom perspective, Gerrard says it is crucial that CIOs establish how the project will start to deliver results quickly. "Get a single version of the truth - create a single repository of information for the entire business," he says.

That single view will make the sell easier from a bottom up perspective, says Gerrard. "You have to go to the people on the ground, show them the tools and explain the types of benefits they will get from the technology," he says.

"Any big data project will not provide an immediate payback, so you have to work out the scale of the initiative. It becomes much easier to sell a big data project if you can show people across the business how real-time information can improve the way the organisation works on a day-to-day business."

Jim Anning, who is head of data and analytics at British Gas Connected Homes, is another executive who has strived to prove the value of information. Connected Homes is a specialist unit that has been set up to investigate the use of big data and smart technology. "We've created a platform that brings in data from across our products and allows us to mine that information for valuable customer insights and to improve our products," he says.

Anning says Connected Homes has built a team around four competencies: analytics (mining the data); data science (developing algorithms to provide customers with direct value); data engineering (operating at scale and managing the data pipelines); and data operations (making sure systems are reliable and always-on).

"That underlines how important big data is for us as an organisation," he says. "We're not really focused on replacing things that people do today with an army of intelligent machines. Great work with big data requires a mixture of machine power and human brains."

Anning says it is extremely hard to put a monetary value on the data until the business starts generating results. He recognises Connected Homes is fortunate to have great support from the top. Anning is also aware that other IT leaders will not be so lucky, especially as suspicions surrounding the significance of big data are at an all time high.

"It's so refreshing to talk to the most senior people within the organisation who 'get' the potential value in the data," says Anning. "They are actively looking for ways to improve what we do for customers by building data-science and data-engineering capability - not just in the Connected Homes area, but across the business."

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