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The big question about big data

Patrick KeddyPatrick Keddy, Senior Vice President, Western Europe, Iron Mountain

“Big data” was the buzzword of 2012 – the year was awash with information, comment and discussion about the topic. As we enter 2013, it’s time for the talking to make way for action. Despite the hype and column inches, however, many businesses do not know what first steps they should take so that they can manage and use big data efficiently to gain an information advantage.

The explosion of big data over the past 12 months has caught many by surprise, with front line managers not sure where to start when it comes to managing the volume. With 12 terabytes worth of tweets created every day and Gartner predicting that the volume of data worldwide will grow annually by 59 per cent, it is easy to see why many businesses are concerned as to how they can manage both the volume and the variety of information that falls under the banner of big data.

Iron Mountain research[i] conducted among 760 information managers in Europe found that half of those surveyed have no idea how to make the most of big data and 21 per cent say they won’t even try.

This attitude will see many businesses miss out on the raft of opportunities that big data presents and may well leave them lagging behind the competition. Instead of striking fear into a business, it should be seen an opportunity to unlock insight and the chance to reap financial returns previously considered beyond reach.

Back to basics
Although big data is a relatively new phenomenon, the principles that should underlie its management have been tried and tested for years, principles that businesses should not lose sight of amidst all the hype. Big data should not result in a big headache. Businesses need to start looking at practical ways of managing the increasing volume within their available resources and budgets.

The key to getting it right is to put in place a robust, yet flexible information management framework that can adapt and grow with the business’ understanding of big data. This will provide a structure that the company can build upon as the full impact of big data becomes clear.

Steps to success
By considering the following checklist, businesses will be well placed to manage whatever comes their way and can start managing big data as a benefit rather simply seeing it as a burden.

1. Start at the end. Define the business goals and objectives and build your big data strategy around them.

2. Shrink the problem: make the challenge manageable. Everything is changing so rapidly that trying to find the perfect solution that addresses every eventuality will prove impossible. Decide on the information of greatest potential or risk to your business and focus your time and resources on harnessing that.

3. Get to grips with incoming data. Prioritise the data coming in, understand what you need to keep and consider deleting the rest. Big data can be messy, so don’t waste too much time cleaning everything that comes in.

4. Have a plan for what’s left. Segment data by date, for example; anything older than a particular date can be archived on back-up tapes in a secure archive. Dispensing with junk mail alone could free up between 30 and 40 per cent of the data space on your servers.

5. Establish company-wide, scalable, big-data-resilient information management systems that will help you to channel, analyse or archive unstructured digital content such as emails and social media.

6. Know your legal obligations. In technology, law always lags behind practice and in the big data world it is particularly important to understand how emerging data protection and privacy law affect social media, real-time consumer data and location-based information.

7. Avoid analysis paralysis. Big data informs and enhances judgement and intuition, it should not replace them. Big data volumes have immense potential for improved decision-making, but can also cause delay as managers try to sift through thousands if not millions of data points in order to make a decision.

8. Opt for progress over perfection. Getting something in place is the most important. Design data management policies in good faith and implement them consistently across the business. What you decide will touch everyone in the business so it is vital to get all employees on board.

9. Make it easy for all departments to see your information. People need access to the data, but they want it to be painless, transparent and easy. Ensure employees know how to search for and analyse the data so they can release its value. Integrate paper into the process by digitising it.

10. View the data in context. Data in isolation is essentially worthless. Don’t get so lost in the detail looking for patterns and trends that you lose sight of the big picture.

11. Consider your carbon footprint. Archived back-up tapes consume a fraction of the power of other leading data storage options, including spinning computer disks and ‘cloud’ storage (which in reality means storage on a permanently switched-on, artificially-cooled server in a data center off-site.)

12. Know where the data is and who is accountable for it. Always.

We have only just started to scratch the surface of what big data can do for businesses. In today’s fast moving and competitive business environment, big data offers mid-sized firms across all sectors an opportunity to find new insights, improve customer relations and supply chain management, make the business more agile and responsive and answer questions that could previously have been beyond its reach. If the right underlying framework is put in place, the financial returns could be phenomenal.