Every company has a big data issue

GoodData's Roman Stanek on how big data applies to all businesses, including the small ones.

When you bandy about a term like “big data” often enough, it tends to lose its meaning. But big data is much more than a marketing term, although it is that, too — it’s a means of trying to understand and control the sheer volume of information we are seeing inside and outside our organizations.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a problem for companies like Google and Facebook, which are gathering mountains of data from users. However, as GoodData CEO Roman Stanek (@RomanStanek) points out in the following interview, the growing amounts of data from a variety of sources makes big data an issue that has an impact on every company, regardless of size.

Stanek, who has been an entrepreneur for more than 20 years, started GoodData in 2007 as a way to simplify business intelligence by putting it in the cloud. Today, he sees big data as more than a business intelligence problem, and as he has watched his business evolve, he believes companies like his can take big data out of the realm of data scientists and put it into the hands of ordinary business users.

There is a perception that big data is a big company problem. What role does big data have in small- to medium-size organizations?

Roman StanekRoman Stanek: Big data comes from hundreds of sources, most of which are outside a company’s firewalls, such as customer interactions, social media and emails. A company’s size is irrelevant to the volume of big data it has to manage and understand. For example, a company with 100 employees may have to answer thousands of customer-support calls coming in from Facebook, Twitter, email and telephone. That’s a massive amount of data it has to deal with.

In addition, big data represents tremendous potential wealth for all companies, no matter how small or large those enterprises are. When businesses are smart about leveraging data, they can make better and faster business decisions.

What factors are contributing to the growing amount of business data?

Roman Stanek: To name just a few: inventory levels, sales results, negative comments on Facebook, positive comments on Twitter, shopping habits on Amazon, playlists on Pandora and online search habits. No matter what you call the information or what it describes, it’s all data being collected.

IDC predicts digital data will grow to 2.7 zettabytes in 2012 (PDF). Thanks to new technologies like Hadoop, once-unquantifiable data — like Facebook conversations and tweets — can now be quantified. Nearly everything is measurable. The result is that companies are spending big dollars to collect, store and measure astronomical amounts of data.

What’s the difference between today’s big data and yesterday’s business intelligence (BI)?

Roman Stanek: Traditional BI is antiquated and broken. Current tools cannot cope with the massive amounts of unstructured data coming in from social networks and the cloud. Commonly used BI tools left a long trail of failed implementations and frustrated customers because they required such heavy lifting from IT departments.

In my opinion, big data’s only real value lies in the ability of businesses to transform data into insights they can act on. Sales managers, for example, can quickly analyze sales reps’ results, view new and lost contracts and compare team performance to the plan they set months earlier.

Help desk staff can see how individual customers affect sales and profit, so they know when to go above and beyond to retain certain customers while allowing the low fliers to churn. Insurance agents can predict the cost and nature of impending damage as hurricanes hurtle toward their region.

How do you get to a point where big data is not just in the realm of data scientists asking the big questions, but where business users find the answers to do their jobs and drive business growth?

Roman Stanek: You shouldn’t need a PhD in statistics to interpret data. I believe people already know what data they need to dive into to make strategic decisions. If I’m a chief marketing officer, for example, I’m dying to learn if Facebook is really driving my sales and, if so, to what extent. To find that out, I need a modern app that pulls in data from myriad sources and then presents that information in a simple, visually intuitive way that lets anyone inside a company make sense of his or her data. The growth and maturity of cloud computing technologies have finally made this combination possible.

How does business get to the point where big data is driving business strategy looking forward as opposed to what has happened, looking back?

Roman Stanek: Using big data to drive business strategy is the next stage of maturity. No company will jump from being anecdotal to analytical in one day. Companies must focus on becoming metrics driven so that they reach that level of maturity in their data analytics.

Traditional BI tools look at historical trends, allowing you to analyze what’s already happened. For example, I can see how my sales trended in the previous two to three quarters. The challenge with this approach is it doesn’t enable you to react to today’s information so you can influence tomorrow’s business performance.

In contrast, next-generation analytics leverage the scalability and processing power of the cloud to find insight people can use now. I recently heard about HR apps that analyze big data to determine which personality types are best suited for different types of jobs. That kind of information enables HR departments to create simple but revealing questions to find — and retain — the best employees for each position. That reduces churn, which has a direct impact on a company’s bottom line.

That’s just an example. The point is that a company’s size truly doesn’t matter. Big data offers the key for any company, regardless of size, to find new sources of revenue, increase profit and make smarter decisions, faster. Thanks to new real-time, cloud-based technologies, that ability is already a reality.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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