Big data — the term itself is overwhelming, yet it doesn’t capture the transformation that data is beginning to drive in organizations today. Data is a digital raw material that companies have been accumulating for years at great expense but suboptimal purposes. Now smart organizations are focusing away from simply amassing ever-larger quantities of homogeneous data to acting on and creating value from wide varieties of data in real time.
Through processing and fusing all available data, data is at last creating an accurate platform for decisions and measurable advantages for businesses: reducing market risk, honing predictive analysis and speeding improvements in processes. The “big” in big data really means the value data can now deliver to the bottom line.
The fact that data is getting bigger, faster and more complex also means it can more closely mirror reality. Social media and smart phones provide live intelligence on events as they happen. Sensors are sending data continuously and beyond their original, usually narrow purposes, creating a second World Wide Web. And this ability to monitor an increasingly accurate picture of the world has just begun: smart sensors are projected to grow to 2.8 trillion devices from 65 million in 2013, according to Susan Eustis, president of WinterGreen Research.
Fusing stored and streaming data sources to create a more complete view of the conditions affecting an organization is hard. Knowing what to do with the insights created could be even harder. But this is exactly where big data is beginning to create value and shake up staid businesses. A recent Gartner survey of business leaders found of those who have deployed big data technologies, 42 percent are developing new products and business models, and 23 percent are monetizing information directly.
Prepare for Big Decisions
The best business manager predicts the future, introducing products and services to exploit new opportunities, overcoming the challenges that restrict that execution, and out-thinking the competition.
In the past, data has forced organizations to focus on history, on areas where data was aggregated. As streaming data sources are combined with stored data, the use of data shifts away from historical collection and analysis to exploiting all relevant data to gain competitive advantages. Decisions are based on present conditions, informed by the past, made by those closest to and most responsible for new products and other business initiatives.
Similarly, organizations are discovering that just accumulating more of the same data won’t substantially improve the decisions they are making. Combining stored data with new, real-time information sources to create more complete and up-to-date views of opportunities and risks will change how predictions are made about businesses and markets, what products and services to offer, to whom, and when to change those products and services.
Technology now exists to do just that, to continuously improve business processes, and change the purpose of data from historical enumeration to real-time predictive, actionable intelligence correlated in space and time.
With these new technologies in place, businesses will continually have to face reality, whether they like it or not. But they will also have greater capacity to act on that reality: to respond to customer sentiment and choices as they happen; to monitor assets in real time; to equip employees and partners with the information they need in the moment. Assessing opportunities and risks faster and more completely, and making decisions about them more quickly, drives business value. And the ability to measure the effects of decisions and actions in real time will also change the metrics of profitability, growth and other measures of those advantages.
Shopping patterns in a mall, soybeans growing in a field, the flow of oil from wells, electricity moving along a grid — these processes can now be seen and analyzed as they occur. Insights change as reality changes, remodeling based on new conditions, while built on, and adding value to relevant historical information. And more important, new classes of applications and services using this live intelligence will ensure that data previously thrown away or never used is continuously acted upon and monetized.
An Era of Insights and Actions
When operating in an environment of live intelligence, employees will respond more quickly to problems and opportunities, and customers will respond more quickly to new products and services.
In fact, first responders provide one way to see the potential of this live intelligence. First responders deal with life and death on deadlines imposed by the unfurling of disasters and crises. Their actions have immediate effects on whether people are saved, property is destroyed or bad actors are thwarted.
Emergency response teams could benefit from Twitter feeds, live video and pictures from the scene, cell signals, location data on emergency medical staff and equipment, Doppler radar, near-live satellite feeds and historical data (to name a few). If anyone on the response team had to analyze these data streams separately, he or she would be overwhelmed. But by fusing the data, only the most relevant and accurate information needed to make decisions at that time could be delivered to each responder.
Similarly, an energy provider might receive phone calls about power outages with conflicting information on the location of an “explosion.” If the power company was combining the location data of social-media streams with grid-sensor data, employees could better manage not only outages, but also deployment of assets, emergency alerts, customer relations and more.
Every organization will have their own responders through this technology: the individuals who can act with the changing realities of business and markets. Many of the insights generated and verified by live and multiple data sources will be counterintuitive and contradict assumptions previously made — even those made by C-level executives. That’s the point. Those organizations that let the reality of business drive execution will see change not as a threat but as an opportunity.
Those Who Act First Will Reap Greatest Rewards
The world is changing, but now businesses can see and act on those changes as they are happening and better predict the changes to come. The earth is being instrumented with millions of smartphones and new sensors every day. These devices are continually reporting weather, temperature, social climate, speeds of cars, trucks, planes and even the locations of cartons of milk and crates of eggs.
Measuring change is one thing; taking advantage of it is another. Transforming this cascade of dissimilar data into actionable intelligence will take not only new tools and technologies, but also visionary leaders to employ them. Those who act first will have an unrecoverable lead on the next twenty years of progress and growth in their markets.
At the same time, big data technologies are driving a democratization of information and changing business culture. Insights from data are going to the people who ask the best questions, have problems they want solved, look at the different areas of information they need, and come up with better ideas based on the clearer reality they are seeing.
The paradox, and value, of data is that as it gets bigger, faster and more varied, the information delivered to us can get more relevant and precise. The raw material, data, that creates this intelligence will increasingly be like any raw material, subsumed by the whole, largely unseen by the end user. As this happens, the purpose of data will change from accumulation to action, from storage to value. That’s good – because there’s a lot of it.