Over the past 50 years, the growth of the IT industry has been driven by the relentless rise of the "next big thing” – mainframes, minis, PCs, LANs, web, mobile, social, software as a service, cloud and so on.
Each era has successfully established a new platform – a combination of hardware, software and communications that expands the foundations upon which useful information systems can be built.
But curiously, in each era it has been the “T” in IT that has received top billing. New technologies and the suppliers behind them have captured most of the public’s imagination, with the implicit assumption that the “I” would eventually come along for the ride. It usually has.
Today, this dynamic is changing. The next big thing is now information itself. Whether we are talking about big data, unstructured data, open data, user-generated content, data sciences, data at the edge, or the data-driven corporation, the emphasis is shifting to the “I” in IT.
This isn’t just happening in business, but in areas of high societal interest, such as the use of analytics in sports and last year’s US presidential election; the computer models that accurately forecasted Superstorm Sandy; and the role of Google in trying to track the spread of flu and other epidemics.
Our ability to use data to better see and understand the outside world is now improving rapidly.
The future of data
However, in the Leading Edge Forum's latest report, on the evolving future of data, we found that while there is clearly great promise in being able to use technology to identify patterns in vast databases, track real-time conversations and trends, deploy smart devices, and develop new data-driven business models, not everyone is fully on board. We were struck by the schism within today’s IT community.
The IT industry may be confusing big data with the idea that data is big. In other words, the size of the database is often less important than the novelty of the use
David Moschella, CSC Leading Edge Forum
The big data, open data and data science communities speak in revolutionary – even utopian – terms about the power of new and better information and algorithms to answer previously unanswerable questions. Companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, LinkedIn, Bitly, Intuit, Zillow, Kaggle and many others have access to unprecedented amounts and types of data which they will surely turn into important new forms of value.
But many CIOs, well versed in the history and challenges of customer relationship management (CRM), data warehouses and other business intelligence systems, tell us that long-standing information management concerns such as integration, architecture, governance, security and the high costs of enterprise resource planning (ERP) are still dominant inside their firms. Interest in new data uses is typically of secondary importance, and these areas are often led by other parts of the firm.
Developing a balanced data perspective
Clearly, data is not the only path to business success. While Google – with PageRank, AdWords and Trends – is a great example of the power of new data-driven business approaches, Apple has flourished by eschewing traditional information-gathering practices, and relying on its own instincts, know-how and aesthetics.
Less obviously, there are two additional patterns.
First, while there are a great many interesting new data uses in the market, there seems to be a shortage of low-hanging fruit – the obvious early adoption examples. Previous eras of IT have all had core, driving applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, email, or search. The lack of these cross-industry applications in big data means that every firm will have to find its own way forward. This suggests steady, but less than revolutionary change.
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Second, perhaps because of the extraordinary progress within the Hadoop community, the IT industry may be confusing big data with the idea that data is big. In other words, the size of the database is often less important than the novelty of the use.
Many advanced data applications – such as location-aware smartphone apps, linked and open data, specialised edge devices and the “internet of things” – do not necessarily rely on petabyte databases; they simply leverage data in innovative and useful ways. Such “small data” uses typically affect customers directly, and thus often have powerful market implications.
Organisations should seek a balanced data strategy, experimenting with the potential of new big data systems, while realising that novel uses of data at the edge – what we call small data – will often prove equally or even more important.
By taking such an approach, firms can seek to put the “I” back into IT, and be leaders not just in technology deployment, but in using data – big and small – to make their firm both more competitive and better prepared for the data-driven customers, marketplaces, and organisations of the future.
David Moschella (pictured) is global research director for CSC’s Leading Edge Forum, a global research and thought leadership community helping large organisations at the intersection between business and IT. To learn more on this topic, download the executive summary of the full research report.