Taming the Hydra of Big Data

Big Data comes with both Big Promise and Big Concerns. What does it all mean for CFOs and their organizations?
Rob LivingstoneMay 9, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a more broadly-focused column by our regular contributor Rob Livingstone. It will feature advice and analysis on Big Data and other emerging, potentially disruptive technologies.  

Big Data is the next “big thing” to come out of the IT world, and carries with it the usual fanfare of opportunity mixed with concerns such as provenance, security and privacy.

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For CFOs still recovering from the Cloud computing road show, having to now make sense of Big Data is no less relevant or important. Big Data has been unleashed by a combination of burgeoning enterprise databases, the explosive uptake of consumer technologies including smartphones and cloud computing.

Rivers of Data
As individuals, our insatiable appetite for smartphones, cloud-based systems and other new technologies is feeding the rivers of data that lead to the global oceans of Big Data.  In addition to this personally generated data, data generated by the commercial, healthcare, research, government and scientific agencies, together with myriad other machine-generated data sources generate torrents of data that eventually end up in data centers dotted around the globe. These large data centers are owned by giants such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon with others buried within businesses and governments, both locally and overseas.

Collectively, this all adds up to a massive volume of data—Big Data to be precise. Simply put, Big Data is data that’s too volatile, large and complex to be effectively handled by standard database technologies currently found within most organizations.

Join the Dots, See the Value
Data alone is of limited value. Only when the data source is analyzed and interpreted in an integrated fashion does its potential value emerge. Turning data to information and knowledge that is accurate, relevant and timely is where the real value to the organization lies.

For instance, climate records, geographic and population census data, medical records, social media traffic and other data sources could be used to identify and predict the trends of specific diseases.  Other well-known examples of the application of Big Data concepts include security and intelligence agencies that have to match, correlate and analyze massive volumes of real-time data to predict and prevent security threats.

How does this relate to the data held within my organization, you ask?

Turning Trash into Treasure
Within most organizations, there is usually a significant amount of data locked away in various systems, often in the form of unstructured data. This data includes items such as videos, images, emails, spreadsheets and Word documents. There are a couple of perspectives that can be taken on the potential value of the data within your organization:

  • Value to You: CFOs should be able to derive value through better decision-making by taking an integrated, fresh perspective of your various data sources. That in turn could lead to improved risk management, better customer service and further innovation within the company. Simply put, joining the dots may not only prove to be a valuable exercise, it could potentially save your business.
  • Value to Others: In some instances, your suitably secured internal data, after its analyzed and anonymized, may be of more value to others than it is to you. This could drive new business opportunities. For example, could your customers’ buying patterns be of value to adjacent, non-competing organizations?

But it is only by taking a fresh perspective on the mix of your data that has been stitched together in a relevant manner, with other relevant data sources if needed, that its potential value will be realized. This will require effort, skill and diligence.

Laws of the Land
CFOs play a crucial part in maintaining appropriate and effective enterprise governance, and as such, should be asking probing questions when it comes to Big Data.  By way of example, the process of managing, analyzing and interpreting Big Data generally involves the merging of disparate data sources, both from within as well as outside of the organization, to newly created, consolidated data sets.   

This raises questions over the governance and security of these new data sets, such as:

  • Who owns, or has title new, these newly created and aggregated data sets?
  • Who decides which access controls should be applied to new data sets, and in which legal jurisdictions do they apply?

Who else is watching your Big Data?
Big Data may well present a rich target of opportunity for cybercriminals.

Globally, cybercrime is a multi-billion dollar business with some of the smartest brains employed to crack security systems. Put simply, there is an ongoing arms race between IT service providers and the cybercriminals, and sometimes the latter win. Will this influence your thinking in any way?

Drowning in a rising sea of low value data is where you and your organization do not want to find yourselves.  By building in the capability to truly understand and release the intrinsic value locked up in your (and others’) data, then integrating that capability into your managerial processes will be the best countermeasure to managing and mitigating the many threats to your organization’s long-term survival.

Rob Livingstone, a former CIO, is the author of Navigating Through the Cloud. He runs an IT advisory practice and is also a Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia, where he teaches strategy and innovation in UTS’s flagship MBITM program. Visit Rob at or e-mail him at [email protected].