Although the term ‘Big Data’ has become something of a buzz-phrase in business, it’s not because the concept is new. It’s because the ability to collect and manipulate vast amounts of data, to help businesses to scale up, is no longer exclusively available to big businesses. Big Data is accessible, and adaptable, and there are a multitude of ways that it can be used to help your business.
Rob, COO of IT solutions provider Perfect Image, tells us: “Big Data isn’t just about the amount of data you have – businesses are now finding that they collect enormous amounts of data, more than ever before, but it’s still a fraction of what multinational corporations collected decades ago.”
It’s a relative term.
Big Data is collecting meaningful data from numerous sources – operations, sales and marketing, finance, HR, market research, and so on, and using it to:
- Be more agile
- Capitalise on new opportunities
- Overcome weaknesses.
And it’s not just the size of the data, but the number of sources it is collected from.
“The Internet of Things, or IoT, is giving businesses the chance to collect data from everyday devices,” Rob points out. “For example, public transport authorities can not only collect data on the number of customers they’ve sold tickets to, but they can also tell how many people are in each carriage of every train.”
If you’re a Tyne & Wear Metro user, you’ll definitely have seen this system in action, as the signs now tell you as you wait on the platform how busy the carriages of the approaching trains are.
“These days,” he continues, “trains have servers on board and it’s nothing to do with the running of the train itself, it’s purely for the collection of data.”
That’s obviously an interesting thing to know, but how do you use that kind of information to help a business grow?
“In many cases when we talk about business growth, we are talking about reaching a wider audience and acquiring more customers,” says Rob. “A Big Data strategy would bring together marketing activities, website interaction, pay per click rates, social media engagement, sales pipeline analysis… this allows a growing business to highlight success – what’s working and not working – and then target future spend in the most effective way possible.
“The biggest organisations in the world want to invest in marketing activities that bear fruit – but the problem is really knowing which activities bear fruit.”
And that’s not as simple as just monitoring, for example, how many sales come through your website. Big Data can tell a much fuller story of the suspect – prospect – customer journey.
“You might touch a customer 20 times before they make a purchase. But understanding the journey that they take – the fact that they came to your website via a Google AdWords campaign, that they downloaded a PDF about a specific product that you offer, then they came to an event with you because of an email marketing campaign you sent them… data collection helps you to understand the process of nurturing leads and relationships, and all the data can be acquired and utilised in a Big Data strategy.”
That data has existed for as long as firms have sold online – what has changed is the ability to use technology to bring this information together. It’s a cultural shift, one which shows acceptance that this technology is within people’s grasp.
“Large enterprise organisations have been doing this for decades; for many years, they subscribed to data enrichment sources, allowing them to compare sales to competitors or industry trends. It’s a way to look for warning signs, to see if they’re growing in the way they might expect. It gives them an insight into how their business is doing,” Rob points out.
“But it was only enterprise level organisations that could turn these millions of pieces of information into something meaningful. Now, with the emergence of much more powerful computing at people’s fingertips, through cloud technology and more advanced analysis platforms, it takes away the ‘old world’ of waiting six months to fulfil a business intelligence project. Now, it can be completed in days.”
Software providers are building more business intelligence software that prioritise the need of the end user, and can make every user in the organisation into a data analyst. And the collection and use of data is not restricted to computerised, or internet driven, processes. In many industries, its importance in operations and productions can’t be underestimated.
“The North East has a rich heritage of manufacturing,” Rob continues, “and lean manufacturing processes are reliant on the application of Big Data.
“It’s by collecting and manipulating data that manufacturers learn everything; from where the bottlenecks in their process are, to how to get the best use of their materials, and how to manage quality in their supply chain and how satisfied their customers are.
“Big Data helps to cut down on the estimating involved in so many aspects of the production process. Machine repair and maintenance was often done in simple rotation, but the ability to collect and interpret data about parts, performance, and quality, means that systems can be devised and implemented which can intelligently estimate how much maintenance should be done, on which machine and at what time.
“By measuring efficiency directly from the machine equipment, they can see when it’s operating well and when it’s not, and only service and maintain them when it’s really needed.”
This whole process makes understanding return on investment simpler, meaning that decisions about equipment purchase are taken on an intelligent basis.
The exploitation of Big Data can be done internally, or can be an opportunity to bring in specialists from outside of an organisation. “When people engage with us,” Rob says of Perfect Image’s role in outsourced IT, “they often start to talk about the technologies. But what’s important is to have a strategy around the management of their data.
“Often IT departments are seen as the custodians of the data, seen as a technical function, but they don’t necessarily understand the day to day pressures of each department. The IT departments don’t know what the teams need, and the teams don’t know what data they have to support their functions.
“We spend time in organisations helping them understand how meaningful data analysis can help them achieve what they need to do. Sometimes it’s about working with them to acquire new sources of information, sometimes it’s more about enriching those sources or cleaning their data to make sure they’re making decisions using accurate data.”