It’s hard to imagine that it would take one of the largest financial services firms in the world six months and five million dollars to answer a question as simple as how many of its customers have a specific type of account. But it’s a reality. The cost to integrate, correlate and analyze the data necessary to answer such simple questions can be extraordinarily high and take so long that sometimes the information is already outdated by the time the answers come to light.
Corporate executives across just about every industry are asking: how do we get answers to critical business questions in a reasonable amount of time? Why is this simple and intuitive process so frequently complex and counterintuitive? The problem of capturing, organizing and maintaining business data should improve as new technology and business processes for managing data evolve but instead the problem has gotten worse.
The amount of data that organizations generate, maintain and store has skyrocketed over the past few decades. New technology and lower costs associated with storing data have made it possible for more employees to build and maintain their own copies of business data, resulting in an overwhelming amount of information. Information is then stored in numerous legacy systems as well as newer data centers and tracking it down can be a complex process. New forms of unstructured data like documents, social media and sensor data that monitor and measure the movement of individuals and equipment have also become more common. This unstructured data is difficult to integrate with traditional customer, operational, account and transactional information which further complicates the analysis process. All of these factors make it harder to uncover answers to a company’s critical business questions.
Implementing big data strategies and using data analysis technology is an effective way to address challenges business executives face daily. If implemented in conjunction with successful business processes, these initiatives can help accelerate the time it takes to uncover critical answers to business questions.
Getting Faster Answers
Let’s suppose that your business wants to invest in a new market but the most recent market information you have is months old. Would you make a significant business investment on this basis? No, you would want the most current information possible before making decisions. Answering current business problems with old data would be an unwise proposition. In business, time is money—the faster organizations can get the answers they need, the faster they can make a decision that will improve their strategy and operations. The difference between retrieving an answer in minutes rather than a few weeks could mean the difference between staying ahead of the competition and lagging behind.
In October, we surveyed CIOs and senior industry executives at Fortune 1000 companies and found that accelerating the speed at which they can make a well-informed decision is a top priority. Big data approaches enable executives to retrieve answers in seconds rather than days, days rather than weeks and weeks rather than months. Companies are able to efficiently answer major business questions at minimal cost. We refer to this ability of an organization to transform the speed at which they can get answers as “Accelerating Time-to-Answer.” This process is at the heart of big data initiatives across all industries and the goal of many top-level executives.
Answering Critical Business Questions
Executives are using big data approaches to answer simple, fundamental business questions like, “How many customers do we have,” or, “What are the sales numbers for our product lines?” As modest as these questions seem, the complexity of the multi-faceted process to mine the answer can be surprisingly vast. For example, depending on the person asking the question, the variables that constitute a customer or product line can vary. Is a customer an individual, a household, a direct client or an indirect client? What seems like a simple question could actually be much more complex in its meaning.
Big data initiatives make it possible to query large volumes of data in “discovery” environments quickly rather than waiting for the organization and preparation steps required in the traditional data engineering process. Big data approaches gives analysts and executives the ability to get answers faster which enables businesses to be more aggressive in their ability to respond to customers, develop new products and identify market opportunities. The more up-to-date and informed executives are, the more educated their decision making is, which can improve business processes and generate more revenue.
Randy Bean, managing partner at NewVantage Partners, co-founded the Boston-based consultancy in 2001. His IT career also includes working on executive information initiatives at Bank of Boston (now Bank of America), serving as senior vice president at database marketing company Harte-Hanks, and chief marketing officer of Veridiem.