Is big data changing the fundamental way we think?

Big data is transforming organisations but, to have real impact, it also requires a change in the way business leaders, analysts and IT teams think

Big data (BD) has become the IT and corporate ‘buzzword’ as a key driver of business strategy, products and even brand. For most organisations, BD includes the Internet of Things – data gathered from a massive range of connected devices. Currently there are an estimated five billion connected devices globally and this is set rise to 20 billion by 2020.

This provides a huge opportunity for businesses to tap into the ‘real’ world of their customers, suppliers and competitors, often in real time. However, it also provides a significant challenge in balancing a useful, credible channel of information against a potential tsunami of data that can quickly become unmanageable and even damaging.

A change of mindset

BD has transformed the accepted truths about business. An organisation working effectively in a BD culture becomes a dynamic, innovating brand that ultimately sells more, more profitably, or delivers more effective services. This requires dynamic, flexible IT systems to support this level of agility.

However, it also requires agile minds and, for any business to make the most of BD, a change in mindset is needed. BD has to fundamentally alter the way people are educated: they have to be taught to fail.

Fact-based learning, with failure not being an option, is no longer applicable to the BD world – "fact" is a relative term.  

Seeking the truth

In general, Western education and training focuses on seeking "the truth".  However, with BD, business is no longer working with one version of "the truth", requiring a different approach to gathering and filtering information where the end result is an 80% probability rather than a 100% certainty.  

Data analysts, IT architects and strategy leaders generally have a mathematical or statistical focus. Now BD has introduced the need for individuals with a range of more creative skills to view the organisation and its customers and suppliers from different perspectives, helped by data.

It’s the way you tell ‘em

The outcome of this approach is a need for IT functions to interpret and present BD to other business areas in a way that stimulates understanding.  It is not about ‘management speak’ or being patronising, but about accepting the fact that spreadsheets and tables are not the only tool.  

In reality, individuals and organisations learn a lot more when a strategy is tested to breaking point

Because of the sheer scale of BD, technologies can now allow infinite segmentation of data, along with the means to present it differently – as infographics or data maps, for example. This allows people to visualise huge volumes of information or plot trends quickly and easily. Often, marketing or operations teams don’t have the luxury of time to analyse and, in the era of BD, agility and rapid decision-making based on a probability approach could mean the difference between success and failure.

Prepare to fail

All of this leads to a need for businesses to allow employees to fail. The successful use of BD means a need to test, experiment with and interpret data to gain knowledge and understanding – often in real time – without a fear of penalties if an approach does not work.  

In reality, individuals and organisations learn a lot more when a strategy is tested to breaking point. Yet, business structures and IT architecture are still largely based on performance management frameworks where failure is not an option, or the solution is a work-around to avoid the appearance of failure. In fact, when it comes to BD, the only wrong answer is to do nothing.

Eddie Short is KPMG’s UK and EMA Leader for Data and Analytics.

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