Big data is everyone’s business

Big data came with big promises. And in the relatively few years since IT departments have been trying to tame the mass of information out there, and use it to gain insights and make predictions, big data has been delivering. But while it was once the domain of the IT department, other areas of business have started to sit up and take notice – with the result that big data is now everybody’s business.

Gartner predicts that by 2017, the CMO will be spending more on IT than the CIO. Forbes says CFOs need to look beyond their traditional areas of responsibility and understand more about the trends affecting business today – including big data and technological innovations. And HR is being affected as analytics solutions give recruitment a strategic boost.

The CIO’s role is, therefore, no longer to deliver, or even to facilitate, but to coexist in the ecosystem of big data analytics happening across the entire organisation. While their insight is certainly necessary, it too will have to evolve to interact with the demands and understanding of the different departments now harnessing big data. Three executives tell us how big data use has evolved in their organisations and industries to become everybody’s business.

Exposure equals adoption

Peter du Plooy, CIO of Engen Oil, says that being downstream in oil and gas, his team collects vast amount of retail convenience store data. The data contains information on all product movements across their 600 stores and is moved to the warehouse for further analysis. “We are seeing more and more data coming in from other business segments, and not only the financial business performance data being collected through the ERP system.”

He says that as the technology providers, CIOs need to pre-empt the business requirement for big data and put the near-real-time infrastructures in place with the various visualisation tools to allow business analysts to work with the data.

He adds that it takes exposure to opportunities before adoption takes place. “We have certainly seen this as we expose other business divisions to the capabilities of the systems and the opportunities to use the visualisation tools to analyse the data that delivers new insights, improve processes or identify new competitive opportunities.”

With this in mind, he says it is important for CIOs to prepare the infrastructures that enable the capability for big data analysis. This includes in-memory processing and various visualisation tools that offer functionality that suits the various business operations and business analysts.

“It’s also important to consider various architectures when designing the infrastructure and processes. Opportunities to use off-premise hosting or usage-based services increase the flexibility and speed of creating these environments.”

Once in place, he says, CIOs can run simulations or scenarios using the tools and demonstrate these to business areas to expose heads of operations or business analysts to the increased capabilities of flexible data analysis.

The only true conflict in this process, he says, is cost. “Most organisations need to prioritise their investment and opex spend, and if there is uncertainty on the business benefits of big data analysis, it could impact the ability to create the environment that delivers competitive analysis.”

Release control or lose it all

Steven Sidley, the CTO of Tuluntulu, says that the emergence of cloud technologies has had a lot to do with other departments’ uptake of big data solutions – especially the marketing department. “About five years ago, a perfect storm of laptops, mobiles, faster, cheaper comms, open source, IaaS, PaaS, SaaS and online-friendly support converged to entice business users to seek their service outside of IT departments. “There is now very little that they can get from the CIO that cannot be sourced from the cloud.”

This, he says, has been particularly appealing for marketers. “The core requirement of product and brand marketing – tell the right people about the right product at the right time, and keep them loyal forever – has now found a cornucopia of expression all over the cloud., Adobe, IBM, and Oracle at the top end, and literally hundreds of quality offerings for niche marketing applications and smaller companies.”

Specifically, he says, big data systems are a marketer’s dream. “Correctly harnessed, they let the CMO talk to an audience of one, understand each customer or prospect’s behaviour down to how often they blow their noses or have sex, and recommend the most compelling and most appropriate way to have a conversation with that person. And this can be purchased easily, quickly and reasonably inexpensively from the cloud outside of the grim purview of the IT department.”

Because of this, he says, CIOs need a mindshift. “We need to understand exactly what the marketing department does – how they think, feel and move. We need to know exactly what tools are available – I have never met a CIO who knows the first thing about technological shifts in this area. We need to allow the CMO to evaluate and purchase a cloud-based system and we need to help them get it and keep it out of old-style IT governance.”

Simply put, he says the CIO has to stop being a manager and start being a broker and facilitator. “In short, if the CIO cannot learn to cede some control, he will lose it all.”

The business must lead!

Clive Butkow, CEO of GroTech, a venture capital firm supporting South African technology startups, says that big data is disrupting every aspect of the value chain across most industry verticals. “Big data implementations were previously carried out in banking, insurance, telecommunications or retail, but we’re seeing all other industries now jumping on the big data bandwagon.”

However, he says that this is often done without an actual understanding of what big data really means. “A lot of data is not big data. Unfortunately, the grey-haired person who never grew up with technology doesn’t understand that big data is part of the digital tool box and that it can be used to drive customer satisfaction, development and growth. Big data is solving problems using different technologies that drive better business performance.”

In his experience (he was previously COO of Accenture), Butkow believes that big data needs to be a core part of the business strategy. “In marketing, for example, the execution should be about seeing what big data you need, obtaining specialised talent from all over the world who have the right tools to turn data into business information, and then pilot in the organisation by starting small. You can’t eat an elephant in one sitting – you have to eat a bite at a time.”

He says that entrepreneurs are doing really well in the big data space, for example solving problems for banks by using big data and information from social media profiles to improve their credit rating processes. “Also, with the Internet of Things, there are literally 1.5 trillion devices linked into the internet. We can start pulling information from them to make better decisions about goods, transport and power – are the cabbages fresh in the store?”

He adds that a lot of money is being wasted on big data because it’s not driving better business performance – and without performance, technology is irrelevant. “The CIO has to work closely with business to determine what can drive better business performance and get technology to do that. You have to have business driving technology, not technology driving business.”

It seems that business, having had a taste of the freedom that big data and the cloud are offering, will be only too happy to take the drivers’ seat in future. It is up to the CIO to reinvent himself to enable and support these kinds of implementations in a far more interconnected future business world.