Knowing where to look and what to look for when it comes to big data takes a special skill. Can small to medium size businesses afford that?
If you look up the definition of Big Data, you’ll find this: data sets, typically consisting of billions or trillions of records that are so vast and complex that they require new and powerful computational resources to process. The challenges to optimizing big data include analysis, capture, curation, search, sharing, transfer, visualization, and information privacy. There’s also the growing challenge of finding people with the right skillsets to know what to look for in these huge bits of information and how to use that data to grow the enterprise.
Who is that person, and what skillsets does he or she have to possess? I posted a blog this past September, “Who Is Responsible for Turning Data into Decisions?” describing the relatively recent position of the data aggregator, a kind of CIO/CMO hybrid. An Experian survey defined the goal of the data aggregator (or chief data officer) as an “evangelist for data within the business;” to help “dictate the governance, management, and security of information.” But people with these skills and talents are, at this point, difficult to find and command big salaries. That can be challenging for a small or medium size business’ bottom line.
Techtarget.com recently published an interview with Dale Neef, author of the book Digital Exhaust, discussing why small to medium size businesses haven’t seemed to capture the benefits of big data. According to Neef, although smaller businesses indicate that they want to take advantage of big data, in reality is they just want to do better analytics with the data they already have. Since SMEs often have less storage capacity and analytic tools, they turn to the cloud. But, as Neef points out, no matter where you get the data from, once you bring in both structured and unstructured data, you still need someone on staff with the appropriate data science skills. However, he also notes that “Nine out of 10 of the highest paying IT salaries are loosely in what you would call the big data disciplines. They’re pretty expensive and the big companies are sucking them up as quickly as they can.”
Neef expresses skepticism over whether SMEs can realize an ROI on these higher skilled workers; whether the increase the company might see in sales will really offset the additional costs such workers involve. In his opinion, these smaller companies should focus on data warehousing and business intelligence reporting. As he says, “Your basic BI and analytic tools are very good. They usually have the information that comes from data that companies really need.”
I understand Neef’s concern; however, I believe that there is a middle ground. It’s a competitive world, and the ability to properly utilize as much data as possible will give an SME a competitive advantage. So although the talent is pricy, I believe it’s worth it. I take the side of the marketing people who say “yes, you can” turn big data into sales. Companies that can’t afford a full-bore leap into big data should still have a data expert in-house and marry that with basic BI tools.
I agree with Neef that the CIO may not have the skills needed to analyze the data, and it’s unlikely that the CMO will possess those skills either. You need a person who’s a dangerous mix of tech and business sense; as I said earlier…a hybrid. The right person needs to be able to: (1) think backwards from a hypothesis made from the data, and (2) have the vision to see what the gobs of data the company has gathered can lead to in terms of growth.