The business case for big data

Should you build a business case to invest time and effort into understanding what big data can do for your company?

“Turning data into insight” – that sounds simple doesn’t it? You would think, in this world of big data, everyone was doing it - or if you are not, you are lagging behind. But there are plenty of IT leaders for whom big data remains a new capability, or where not chasing it down may actually be the right thing to do for now.

Examples of using big data stretch across many industries, whether combining buying habits with location data to push individually-tailored offers in the retail sector, or using predictive analytics in manufacturing plants to optimise plant maintenance. 

Manufacturers of aircraft engines routinely gather real-time sensor data from aircraft to predict service windows and assess performance; and through that, offer innovative lease and service contracts to attract the airlines. 

Supermarkets have long tracked weather forecasts to know when to fill shelves with ice cream and barbecue goods; and now they factor-in buying habits through loyalty card data and launch instant offers at certain times to clear perishable stock, ready for the next day.

In each case, and no matter what structured and unstructured data is being brought together, the aim is the same: to make or save money for the organisation.

But what if you are not investing in big data? Perhaps you are very smart and have identified better ways to invest your money to generate competitive advantage and to become more profitable; or perhaps you’re lucky and your competition is even further behind you. 

If you are in the former “by design” category, you can stop reading, as you’ve already done your homework. If, however, you are in the latter “by luck” category, I encourage you to read on and consider if you should be building a business case to invest time and effort into understanding what big data can do for your company.

Questions to consider

Some simple questions can help determine whether you should invest in big data:

  1. Do you believe that you could derive new or value-added insights from existing data in your organisation?
  2. From an IT perspective, are you convinced that departments in the organisation are missing the opportunity to combine their functional data to work more efficiently?
  3. Putting yourself in the shoes of the consumer, can you see how your company could target you better – making you a happy customer – and more effectively, giving you a happy CFO?
  4. Are you envious that other companies in your sector – and outside – are publicly announcing their success in using big data?
  5. Are you concerned that one of your colleagues - the marketing chief, perhaps? - will soon be asking what big data capability you have available? And if not, why not?

If you answered at least one question with “yes”, then perhaps you should consider the following:

How to build a case for investment

Addressing the business case for big data should be no different from any other investment in new technology. What are the drivers for change? What is the appetite for risk? What is the intended, or hoped-for, outcome in moving from today to a future state? What value does that future state appear to generate? What proportion of value is tangible and what proportion intangible? 

True insights come when diverse structured data is brought together with unstructured and contextual data

No single question is a game-changer, but together they can support or challenge any request for investment capital. If funds are tight for a proof of concept, appreciate that there is a short list of suppliers and a shorter list of consultancies, each eager to build their credentials in new sectors and new uses of big data algorithms. 

Exploit the fact that this is an emerging technology with an incomplete set of use cases across all sectors and lines of business. Suppliers and systems integrators are likely to be willing to invest their business development funds in this, keeping your costs to a minimum. 

How do you pick the right player to work with?

Why pick only one? There are good examples where several suppliers have been invited to deploy their toolkits on a common set of data. True competition follows as each seeks insights drawn from their own perspective. In these scenarios, it is common for the client to receive several different results, any one of which may represent true insight. 

But it is this last point that you need to think about more - while tangible value must be your ultimate outcome, how it is achieved will vary on your comfort with the unexpected? 

Clever visualisation of diverse data sets will no doubt aid decision-making. It may simply make data more accessible. Both may drive incremental value. True insights, however, come when that same diverse structured data is brought together with unstructured and contextual data

Challenging your candidate big data supplier to think differently and to show you results that you could never have imagined is insightful. You will not know if that leads to value until that point, however you can be comforted that you are seeing your business from a new perspective. And once you have a new viewpoint, you will never go back to how life was before.

Andrew Marks (pictured) is CIO of Tullow Oil, and a member of the Corporate IT Forum. Through its Real IT Awards -‘Turning Data into Insight’ category the Corporate IT Forum recognises organisations that have been successful in integrating new or complex sources of data to support organisational decisions to ultimately make or save money.

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