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Big data - what’s the big deal?
Wednesday, 20 June 2012 06:36
Written by Ilva Pieterse
Big data is said to have a huge impact on the business world in future
Earlier this year, David Newman of Gartner declared, “Big data will disrupt your business. Your actions will determine whether these disruptions are positive or negative.” Given this statement, how much of a disruption can business expect to face? And what actions should be taken to ensure big data has a positive impact on the bottom line?
Inana Nkanza, country manager at EMC Southern Africa, believes the scale and scope of changes brought about by big data are currently at an inflection point as a number of trends converge.
“The increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, together with the rise of multimedia, social media, and the Internet, will fuel exponential growth in data for the foreseeable future,” he says.
“Data has now reached every sector in the economy. Big data will help to create new growth opportunities and entirely new categories of companies. Many of these will be companies that sit in the middle of large information flows where data about products and services, buyers and suppliers, consumer preferences and intent can be captured and analysed.”
Craig Stephens, principal solution manager: information management at SAS South Africa, believes that big data holds the key to many opportunities by being able to provide a deeper understanding of customers, competitors, employees, and market sentiment. “The real value of it is most apparent when looking at industry specific benefits. For example, in the banking and retail industry, seeing beyond the usual lifestyle and income demographics can provide a huge competitive edge,” he says.
According to Acceleration director Richard Mullins, big data, in the context of digital marketing, is an opportunity to impact directly on the business’s bottom line by using data for better decision-making. “By drawing and analysing data from multiple systems – CRM, search, display advertising, social, affiliates, Web analytics tools and more – marketers can understand customer needs and behaviour better,” he explains.
Essentially, as Nkanza puts it, “Big data enables business processes that transform organisations, and embedding big data into business processes helps to build business value faster.”
The key to effectively leveraging data lies in proper understanding, analysis, insight, and embracing change.
“Understanding which data is relevant to their business goals will help companies get a better return on investment,” explains Mullins.
According to Stephens, “The key to extracting value in unstructured data is analytics. There are various techniques that can be used: there is text mining which analyses the contents of documents, sorts the unstructured data into ‘topics’, and provides a numeric representation of the text. ‘Content categorisation’ is another technique that can be used to classify unstructured data by applying Natural Language Processing techniques to automatically categorise large volumes of content like Twitter feeds. Once you have this information in a structured format, you can start building a social media profile of your customers, suppliers and competitors. This has become vital given the ripple effect social media may have on your company.”
Mimecast’s senior pre-sales engineer Kendal Watt says an enormous amount of information lies within unstructured data repositories such as closed e-mail systems, .pst files, and offline archives which are spread all over the place and almost unusable. “Let’s not dwell on the importance of cloud computing and e-mail archiving; both disciplines are considered important and the delivery models have been debated for almost a decade if not more. Let’s rather assume both are in place, now add indexing and super-fast search; all of a sudden there is immense possibility. The time to look far beyond archiving and traditional e-mail is upon us. The only obstacles facing significant change in communication and making data useful again lies within us and our fear of change.”
“It is a given that data offers potential value,” says Mervyn Mooi, director at Knowledge Integration Dynamics. “Getting the most from it, though, entails sifting through the masses of data, which is difficult at best. But, if the business can sift the gems from the dirt, then there will be great return on investment. The Internet is a common place for all sorts of data, information, interactions and communications, like a tap of running water. Affinity analysis, for example, is fuelled by both structured data and unstructured data, such as the latest news and indicators, from Internet business Web sites and social media alike. This reduces or eliminates the need for an organisation to implement special data acquisition measures.”
According to Nkanza the journey to big data involves changing the process that is used to gain insight from your information. “It moves from analytics to data science with the creation of a new role – the data scientist. This person leads a cross-functional team to gain insights from data. Data science requires a high degree of collaboration to accelerate insights – sharing data sources and what people find. It also requires self-service access to create new data marts, ensuring that IT is serving the needs of the business with automation, rather than intervention.”
Failing to adequately collect, process, and manage data can significantly hinder a company’s success with big data benefits.
“Today, businesses are faced with a wider variety, a higher velocity and a bigger volume of data that they are either producing every day, or is available to them through external sources,” says Stephens. “Companies are faced with a ‘big data problem’ when they lose the ability to effectively process and make sense of their data. The biggest challenge to dealing with big data is deriving value from it, which requires classification and analytics capabilities.”
Mullins believes the challenges don’t lie in the volume of data, but rather in ensuring that the right data is collected and going to the right decision makers. “The challenge is ensuring the data is moved from one place to the right place in a safe secure manner and the users of the information are trained to use it from the new source,” Watt says.
According to Mooi, a huge challenge for organisations today is managing the data chaos. “It registers issues such as capacity, competency, infrastructure, governance, resources, and any solutions that will sift the volume and turn it into meaningful information.”
He urges that companies should have, at the very least, plans in place to address the three “Vs” namely variety, volume, and velocity. “Variety is magnified by the explosion of Web-based computing and data that has necessitated free-form storage catering for unstructured data storage and handling. Managing large data volumes and improving velocity is achieved through the use of technologies such as massively parallel and in-memory processing (MPIP), compression, highly-configured blade or networked server farms, expanded server address access, and data appliance technologies, which will all be de rigueur for the modern business seeking efficiency, flexibility, and scalability. The same applies to the products or tools for managing large volumes of unstructured data.”
THE LOCAL CONTEXT
From a business perspective, Stephens explains, South African companies have the opportunity to gain a real competitive edge in the market by adapting a far more proactive stance when it comes to utilising big data, rather than only drawing on the insights it holds when reacting to a specific business problem. “Locally, the most important factor when it comes to ‘approach’ is this change in mindset - from seeing big data as there to be used when a crisis or challenge arises, to seeing it as an integral part of the company’s everyday operations,” he says.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that Internet access is the biggest challenge,” says Watt. “Because people are.”
He explains that broadband connectivity is a ubiquitous commodity in the lives of most working South Africans. “CIOs and IT managers are already thinking about which applications are dependent on big data and how to move these to repositories which do not place restriction on users nor management burden on technical staff. These systems may range from ERP to e-mail and could be accessed via iPads or smartphones from anywhere. Having this data at the fingertips of users and decision-makers alike will ensure decisions can be made with all the facts more quickly,” he concludes.
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