How to make the most of corporate data

IT departments focus on structured data but miss the needs of almost half their employees, says CEB managing director Andrew Horne

Businesses are increasingly talking about big data, but most are struggling to use the data they already have, according to a major study from the CEB (formerly the Corporate Executive Board). 

Nearly 70% of employees say they don’t have access to the information they need for their jobs. Fewer than half say the information they get is in a useable form, research by the business advisory group reveals.

The CEB study – based on a survey of 10,000 employees and in-depth interviews with IT professionals at 30 large enterprises – suggests businesses would be better off putting resources into managing unstructured data, rather than investing in traditional database systems.

Businesses 'missing the needs of half their workforce'

“The report raises questions about where IT departments are putting their effort. Group IT has focused on structured information, and by doing that they are missing the needs of almost half their employees," said Andrew Horne, managing director at CEB (pictured above).

According to the research, over 80% of employees rely on unstructured data in the form of emails, comments on social media or intelligence from co-workers in their jobs.

However most businesses are focusing their IT investments on managing structured information, particularly through ERP and CRM systems, said Horne.

Key questions for CIOs

  • What are the most valuable uses for big data?
  • How to I prioritise cross-functional information needs?
  • How can I cater to diverse and harder to anticipate information needs?
  • How do I present information from diverse sources to improve decision making?
  • How do I make access to divers sources of information flexible and transparent?
  • How do I upskill IT staff to exploit big data?

For more advice, download the CEB report, Business Outcomes From Big Data

Source: CEB

CIOs 'stuck at the first hurdle'

The biggest problem companies face is knowing how to use the information they collect to benefit the business, the study reveals.

Suppliers pitch big data products, based on their technical capabilities. However, it is more important for CIOs to look at the business problem. 

“A lot of CIOs get stuck at the first hurdle,” he said.

Another big challenge is making corporate data available in a form that employees can use and understand.

“It's all very well to say we could have better marketing if we could link our product warranties with our marketing database and comments people are making on Facebook. But how do you bring it together in a way people can visualise and make sense of?” said Horne.

Problems can occur when companies rely on standard database reports and dashboards, which need customising to answer non-standard queries.

Pulling data together

In one case, a pharmaceutical company discovered that it took up to a month for marketing and IT staff to pull data together for new business reports.

The company invested in in-memory analytics technology, capable of pulling data together from different sources and answering queries on the fly.

The result was a 98% reduction in the time taken to analyse data.

“Now marketing can pull data together in four or five days. There is a lot more they can do themselves, without involving IT,” said Horne.

Linking in to Twitter and Facebook

CEB advises CIOs to work closely with HR, marketing and the rest of the business to ensure they make the most of company data.

The IT department of a multinational automotive manufacturer realised the organisation could conduct highly personalised marketing campaigns by monitoring social media.

It worked with the marketing department to combine records from car dealerships, with its warranty database and data gathered from Twitter and Facebook.

The system allows the supplier to correlate customers comments about their cars with the model they bought and their service records, providing the manufacturer with an early warning of potential problems.

“If there is a problem with a particular model of vehicle, that is likely to show up first on Facebook or Twitter,” said Horne.

The system can detect marketing opportunities when, for example, a customer Tweets that he or she is in the market for a new car. “It allows much more targeted marketing,” said Horne.

In another case, a technology supplier worked out it could reduce the time taken to resolve hardware support problems by monitoring employees comments on LinkedIn.

Now, if someone complains on LinkedIn, they can spot that and issue a helpdesk support ticket. The result has been a 40% reduction in the time taken to resolve problems, from 10 to between four and six days.

Being open about data quality 

Companies can make better use of their data by being more open about the quality of their corporate data with their employees.

“If people know about the quality problems of data, they are more likely to be comfortable using it because they know its limitations,” said Horne.

If people know about the quality problems of data, they are more likely to be comfortable using it

Andrew Horne

For example, data that might not be accurate enough to create a report for investors, might be accurate enough to use in marketing.

In the past, companies hid the quality issues with data, or they didn’t make data accessible until it was perfect, said Horne.

Finding staff with the skills to work with data is another challenge. Companies don’t necessarily need to hire skilled data scientists, but they do need people with an intuitive feel for numbers.

Data analysis skills 

The research showed 62% of employees who work with data do not have the skills to analyse it.

“Sometimes data is right, sometimes wrong. You need someone to look at the data and tell when the results make sense and when they do not,” he said.

The CIO needs to work closely with business managers and the HR department to make sure employees have the right skills, the report said.

“IT has to be involved because it is  providing the tools these people use, and if they use them badly, IT gets the blame,” said Horne.

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