Big data? Big deal.

Big data? Big deal.

Over the past year or two, there’s been no shortage of chatter about Big Data.

In a sign of the times, Big Data has its own write up on Wikipedia, and McKinsey continues to extol the benefits of innovation, competition and productivity of Big Data.

But I have to wonder whether Big Data this is more hype than substance.

Don’t get me wrong; data analysis, insights and analytics are tremendously valuable. Data is what has allowed us to decode the human genome, identify the root cause of SARS and wipe out or dramatically reduce diseases such as Measles and Rubella.

But those are all accomplishments of the past. To be sure, there will continue to be similar accomplishments in the future, but doesn’t that mean that we’ve been benefiting from the virtues of Big Data for many years now?

More and more, I am coming to believe that Big Data is just the latest buzz term used by armies of consultants to sell more X. (Hardware, software, services, etc…) Granted, I’ve spoken a lot about Big Data on my own blog, but I’d argue that the points I’ve raised (and continue to raise) are fundamentally different, and best summarized by a close friend of mine, who is the CEO of a middle market financial services firm:

Big Data is not tech. It’s a cultural shift that affects my people, operations and culture. It’s a disruptive innovation and a new way of thinking about things that can make my company better, stronger, smarter and more competitive. If we can figure out how to be more data-centric, we can get better products to more customers and make more money.

I think that sums it up pretty nicely. There’s a ton of money being spent on Big Data initiatives right now, and if you read any of the white papers in this space, they all seem to advocate the same thing. Set up a Hadoop cluster, identify, tag and cleanse data and do some visualizations. That’s a great way to dip a toe in the water and begin setting up experiments, but the big fuss about Big Data started two years ago, and no one seems to have provided any insights into what to do after these interesting experiments get set up.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t pretend to hold myself out as an expert, but I am convinced of a few things:

  1. Big Data is just a buzz term to describe the continuing evolution of human beings to better use information to solve big problems;
  2. The effort described above can be hugely valuable, even if the term itself is vague, and;
  3. Most Big Data efforts are really people issues that are mistaken as technology issues.

This last point is key and reflected in the quote from my friend above. It took Corporate America years to understand that IT was not an expense item to be minimized, but a strategic enabler to business operations and strategy.

Despite this realization, IT still struggles to be understood by many managers, and this might be why the US continues to suffer from an IT productivity paradox.

Given the continued investment firms are making into Big Data , I don’t think firms can continue to mistake the human element of driving technological change.

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