Unstructured data: Challenge or asset?

Big Data is overwhelming most organizations; requiring new ways to operate to stay competitive; helping to serve customers better; and bringing new products to market faster.
Written by Diane Berry, Coveo, Contributor
Commentary - Big data, unstructured data, semi-structured data. Data is all over the technology news, and for good reason. It is overwhelming most organizations; requiring new ways to operate to stay competitive; helping to serve customers better; and bringing new products to market faster.
  • Gartner predicts that enterprise data will grow by 800 percent in five years, with 80 percent of it unstructured. A big part of this trend includes data from groups, communities and social networks outside the business.
  • According to a recent IBM Survey of 1,500 CEOs, a staggering number of CEOs describe their organizations as data rich, but Insight poor and voice frustration at not being able to transform available data into feasible action plans, let alone detect emerging opportunities.
  • Particularly disturbing is the inability of companies to effectively manage customer information coming from social media as well as enterprise systems. A recent Coveo survey of 100 customer service executives showed that 85 percent believe their management of unstructured content will determine how effectively and efficiently they’ll be able to serve customers in the future.
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A recent survey of customer service executives shows that their ability to handle unstructured data will determine their ability to serve customers well.

  • The movement to customer-centric operations—made essential by the vast choices open to consumers and B2B buyers – requires all departments to draw insight from customer information in disparate sources and to share their findings with other areas. Coveo’s survey showed that 87 percent of leaders would consider it “very important” to share near real-time integrated data – if they had it – between product management, customer service and sales in their organizations.
Understanding how data contributes to insight and knowledge
Organizations may confuse data, information and knowledge. Data is useless unless combined with other data to create information. Knowledge is the human capacity to take action facing a complex situation. Collective knowledge is often the most important asset of an organization, which is why it can be referred to it as Knowledge Capital.
  • Insight into knowledge enables people—such as front-line operational staff in service, sales and engineering— to tap into an organization’s collective knowledge in order to be more efficient, more effective and more agile –therefore providing better service, building better products and selling more.
  • This ability to gain the necessary knowledge to face a complex situation is accomplished by: a) quickly re-assembling the relevant information from all sources and b) identifying the people who possess the knowledge.

    While data is key to creating knowledge, it’s just that—a building block. In and of itself, data provides limited value. Unstructured data from customer interactions and social media in particular can overwhelm most organizations, but can also create tremendous opportunity when leveraged correctly.

    Legacy technology to handle unstructured data often attempts to consolidate the data by moving the data into a “system of record,” whether that is a CRM, Knowledge Base, collaboration platform or other type of technology. The initial challenges with this strategy are summarized here, however the challenges are multiple. Mercurial, unstructured data:

    1. Is unavailable to users during the time it is being curated
    2. Quickly becomes outdated
    3. Continues to proliferate outside of the system of knowledge

    The consequences of this strategy have been experienced for the past several years as data has begun to overtake companies’ ability to manage it. Users, unable to easily find the information they need, and after having spent significant amounts of time trying to find, consolidate and correlate certain useful information, duplicate it on their own desktops. There, it ages. New information is not added, the user does not benefit from new findings, and when this action is compounded, the organization’s risk grows, and the company’s agility suffers.

    The new best practice for managing unstructured data involves technology that is used daily by everyone—and yet is little understood
    This is the indexing technology that provides all of us with whatever we are seeking – on the Internet. Because information on the Internet is mostly homogeneous, it is not difficult to gather and manipulate, and there are powerful engines which do just that. However, within the enterprise are heterogeneous information environments, which increase the complexity of information consolidation and requires sophisticated connectivity to pull the information, in near real-time, into a central, unified index, a sort of virtual, real-time information integration.

    Within the index, information should be manipulated to match the actions users take. People basically connect the dots when working with information and now, with the advent of multi-channel text analytics that run on a central, unified index, Insight technology can do just that. Text analytics across heterogeneous data enables information relationships to be created, themes discovered and next best actions recommended. This enables the correlation of both enterprise and social data to provide tremendous insight into customers, prospects, markets and more.

    Importantly, the newly “structured,” unstructured data must be presented in interfaces that facilitate human interaction: allowing employees, customers and partners to navigate and make sense of it, in effect to discover new ideas, new relationships and new ways to drive business, all thanks to unlocking the latent knowledge capital. Because Insight Solutions do not replace existing technology, but leverages all systems, such implementations are the least disruptive many organizations have experienced.

    Justifying the investment needed to increase Insight
    For many companies, knowledge is the greatest asset. Organizations have hard assets, such as desks, computers and phones and knowledge, which is derived from human capital, comprising the assembled know-how, relationships, intellectual property and information. This asset, along with brand capital and relationship capital, accounts for the significant gap between enterprise value (as defined by the stock market) and book value of companies (meaning the hard assets minus depreciation). For example, assume Coca Cola destroyed all of its plants, equipment, trucks and other hard assets, but still owned the brand and employed the people. Would it be able to raise capital and rebuild the infrastructure? Yes, and quite easily.

    If knowledge is an asset, then the return on that knowledge is ultimately linked to the ability to enable people to access that collective knowledge more efficiently. It either drives a return, or otherwise, it sits in a corner and the organization fails to leverage it.

    As another example, assume there are two agents in a customer service organization. Yesterday, one spoke with a customer, solved a problem and logged the information in a ticket. An hour later, the other agent, sitting in another office in a different part of the world, gets a call from a customer with a similar issue, but doesn’t have the ability to tap into the work the first agent had done yesterday. What is the impact on the organization? The agents are reinventing the wheel, so the impact is dollars. By failing to leverage the collective store of knowledge, the organization is asking people to recreate knowledge each day. The impact of bad customer service results in a greater investment in sales and marketing because of the need to regain lost customers or rebuild a suffering reputation. The strategic and economic impact of managing knowledge is significant.

    Fundamentally, time has a direct impact on the cost structure of an organization. If agents, for example, spend too much time solving issues, it has a direct impact on cost. If scientists spend too much time re-conducting tests instead of using information from former tests as well as customer feedback to develop a new product, the company’s time to market, as well as product acceptance, suffers. If a salesperson fails to use knowledge about recent customer complaints in a contact center or has to piece together the full history of a client with the organization, the sales cycle will suffer. Compounded, these issues bloat costs and reduce an organization’s agility and competitiveness.

    From an ROI perspective, it’s straightforward. Better access to consolidated, correlated, unstructured data can cut time spent in knowledge-driven activities in half. If 50 percent of a company’s call center time is spent on knowledge-driven activities and the company spends $100 million per year on the call center, at least $50 million of the budget is associated with people spending time trying to figure out answers to problems. Slashing that time in half saves the company $25 million per year.

    Getting started: Different roles perform similar knowledge-based activities
    Every organization’s information needs are different, and yet the ways we interact with knowledge in order to gain Insight are universal. When working to increase Insight across your organization, it’s important to understand how employees interact with knowledge, for what purposes and from which systems. The table below presents examples of varying types of knowledge-based activities for three groups of employees.


    Early adopters of Insight technologies gain considerable advantage
    We’re in the first inning of a long game of how people interact with and manage the unprecedented amounts of unstructured data within both social media and enterprise systems. Looking at Google and Yahoo and the searchability across the web, we see the tactical aspect of getting information quickly. More importantly, you’re empowering people to become smarter, tap into the world’s collective knowledge more effectively and get a return on the collective knowledge. The question becomes, what are the constraints within enterprises that prevent this paradigm shift from occurring? Why are we still sitting people in front of scrolling screens with boxes and using a preconceived workflow instead of SQL queries? It’s primarily because an enterprise’s content is diversified versus the content on the web, which is reasonably homogeneous. This paradigm shift is providing every single stakeholder and user of this type of technology with a greater ability to gain knowledge and Insight. Insight is about gaining knowledge, identifying people and linking key relevant information in order to solve problems. The ability to do that creates huge economic value, resulting in unstructured data becoming an asset rather than a challenge.

    Diane Berry is Senior Vice President, Marketing and Communication of Coveo. Ms. Berry was previously SVP, Global Marketing and Communication with Taleo Corp. where she was responsible for all global marketing, from new product launches to analyst and media relations, customer value studies, customer user groups and strategic messaging and positioning.

    Following Taleo, Diane was Chief Marketing Officer of SelectMinds, a corporate social media solutions provider and became an industry spokesperson for the value social media brings to business. Ms. Berry also led the company’s product expansion from a provider of corporate alumni networks to a leading provider of social media solutions for many different corporate constituencies, from employees to customers.

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