The Cloud

Prepping for the Big Data Future

Big Data isn’t coming, it’s here. But having all the data in the world — and there’s an awful lot of it — isn’t going to help you one bit unless ev...
Taylor ProvostDecember 3, 2012

BOSTON — Matt Fates envisions a world where no one talks about Big Data anymore. Using the totality of an enterprise’s data to make forward-looking business decisions, develop new products, and improve marketing efficiency will be so common that there won’t be a name for it.

But getting to that point, in his view, will involve a cultural shift; a change of consciousness.

“Big Data requires big change,” Fates, who specializes in early-stage technology companies as a partner at Ascent Venture Partners, told a group of finance executives at Monday’s “Making the Most of Big Data” CFO networking breakfast here. He stressed that Big Data — which most commonly refers to the increasing volume and variety (both structured and unstructured) of the data produced by social media, mobile devices, the Internet, and interconnected machines — “is not a magic bullet. There’s no pixie dust you can sprinkle and suddenly you’ll have new insight. And the change has to be driven from the top down.”

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The sheer volume of data is staggering. According to an IBM study, every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years alone. But companies, Fates said, are in the very, very early stages of capitalizing on all that potential information. In fact, he said, many are drowning in the current data explosion and will have to adjust their internal processes before they can begin to make sense of it all.

“A number of things get in the way of taking advantage of Big Data,” said Fates. One factor he noted is a lack of enterprise commitment. “Is it a company priority?” he asked. It needs to be if behaviors are going to change.

Using Big Data to make better business decisions requires that all the data a company collects and manages be integrated, not locked away in silos. Part of that problem is technological — the integration is poor because the tools are outdated — and part is political. Data is power. It can sometimes determine compensation; it’s frequently used to lobby for resources and position. People are not always willing to share. The question of who owns the business’s data — IT, the business-unit leaders, the finance department — will have to be resolved, said Fates, and at the highest levels, if Big Data is to fulfill its promise.

Other things get in the way, too, Fates said. Any data-integration effort will raise privacy issues as what was once dispersed throughout an organization is now centralized and accessible. This is a special concern in health care.

“To succeed,” he said, “you’ve got to work through all these roadblocks.”

Fates admitted that right now, at the present state of Big Data technology, companies that want to harness it for predictive analytics will have to make a relatively hefty investment in infrastructure and personnel. But in the future Fates believes that the cloud, and more specifically software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, will lower costs for the small-to-midsize masses. “For example,” he said, “Amazon offers a high-performance database you can use by the drink. That allows you to get started much more cheaply.”

Small businesses can take advantage of pay-as-you-go-type SaaS applications that can be run against the information stored in the cloud to deliver actionable information to companies but, as Fates said, “just having access to the data does nothing.”

However, once the CFO begins asking the right questions of all that data, “it’s like bringing a flashlight into a dark room.”