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5 years!

5 years ago in an office far, far away….

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2011 was a busy year: Prince William married a Middleton, rioters hit the streets of England, Google launched its Real Time Analytics and our founder David Ellis decided to start-up Station10.

Yes, we’re officially 5 years old. Happy Birthday Station10!

For us, 2011 signified a turning point where businesses started to take data seriously. It felt to me it was the year where MDs, CEOs, CFOs and UFOs started to make strides in taking advantage of all the data they had collected. The people were sold a promise – the promise of the “single view of the customer”. This was the next big thing.

The idea that you could have predictive analytics was becoming a reality and everyone wanted in. Everyone wanted “big data”.

Known, unknowns….

The term “big data” was coined to describe new technologies and techniques that could handle a magnitude of unstructured data. It could give you answers to “the things we know but haven’t proven and the ability to discover unknown unknowns from the data”. (I have paraphrased quote from Donald Rumsfeld From a Press Conference at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, June 6, 2002)  

Now, I’m not saying that this is a man I admire, nor do I support his views. But there is something in this quote that is relatable – this is what businesses are trying to achieve.

His statement may have sounded a little strange at the time, but it encapsulates the idea that a lack of evidence does not mean that something doesn’t exist. Take my son for example, he doesn’t yet know that mathematics is the corner stone to his becoming the greatest physicist of all time – but he will (ambitious fatherJ). Just because one isn’t aware of something, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Like my son, businesses often make assessments based on “what we know” and “believe”. They never seem to consider the unknowns (or even the possibility that they might be facing some unknown unknowns).

However, once companies started collecting reams of data to help them understand the ‘unknowns’ – they were now drowning in it. Ironically companies begun investing in data analysis services with little or no knowledge of how to use the information.

Where are we now?

So 5 years on, and the story remains pretty similar (the more things change, the more they stay the same). All the promises that “big data” made back in 2011: better ROI on unstructured data, solving the impossible business problems, driving new opportunities. Many of these goals, for most organisations, still remain outstanding. We might have left the starting line, but only just…

Am I being cynical? Perhaps. But this is the case with many clients I have worked and spoken with: Big Data hasn’t solved enough big business problems or at least hasn’t yet delivered on all of its expectations.

The one thing that has happened is that the tools have improved and we are now able to collect even more data from the customer than ever before. So what is preventing progress?

I guess it comes back to that eternal question, “tell me something interesting about the data”. If the person asking you this doesn’t know what they are looking for , “Big Data” isn’t going to give them the answers. I believe this is what has stopped a lot of businesses from moving forward.

People thought that “big data” would be the answer to all the problems. But it wasn’t. Because Big Data is just a tool (albeit a powerful one) that you can use to answer questions – providing you ask the right ones.

Often you find that the people asking the questions are not the ones who should be asking them.  So the questions come out wrong. The organisation needs to be empowered to ask the right questions of the data – and they need to come from those at the top.  Even now, that still isn’t happening across many organisations.

You can’t play a symphony without an orchestra

In any organisation, people and/or departments each have their own agenda. It’s all political, right? What’s important, then, is making sure that everyone has a vested interest in the company’s goal. Each part of the business needs to be playing in tune, from the same music sheet, and must understand their part in the orchestra…

Once everyone is invested in making the data work for them, then you have potential to make some real headway and make changes across the business that have a real impact.

The key to success is based on having the right foundations in place: the right people, in the right roles, with the right mind-set, working in harmony. Like any orchestra, the conductor is pivotal; you can’t play a symphony alone. It is the same in business. It’s all about people, process and unity – a talented team and the right approach will get you far.

Looking back, perhaps this what we have learned: it’s all about how you conduct your business to capitalise on all the data at your disposal. First things first – get your conductor to ask the right questions…

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