Big Data – Big Questions

Karen MorrisBy: Karen A. Morris, Board Member, The Global Sourcing Council and Chair, GSC Women’s Empowerment Committee

The COO of a global firm recently asked me a right question and an important question. The right question is this: “In 2014, what kinds of conversations should we be having about big data?” The important question is this: “Is big data a big innovation?” The latter question yields to an easy answer. Yes. Big data is potentially the most significant digital-era innovation. Bigger than the internet. A big conversation then?

Innovation and big data share a common problem. We talk about them often but may not necessarily appreciate what they mean. My minimalistic working definition of strategic innovation is the creation or extraction of new value from insights. Coincidentally, that definition also captures what big data uniquely enables – previously unattainable insights, the energy source of innovation and competitive advantage. Big data is more than big. We are talking about almost incomprehensibly large amounts of data. A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes, or a 1, followed by 21 zeroes. IDC Digital illustrated this simply – should you fancy storing a zettabyte on 32-gigabyte iPads, you would need 86bn devices.

Big data is potentially the most significant digital-era innovation.

Beyond and because of this massive scale, big data implies the possibility of navigating those oceans of information to discover meaning, find patterns and surprising connections. A mere decade ago, 25% of stored information was digitalised – now it’s tipping past 99%. In innovation terms, this is jaw-droppingly amazing. Not even 3D printing can vie with big data’s draconian force as the innovation that keeps on innovating – and its potential is still nascent.

Big data can wield its innovative prowess on the least tractable of mankind’s challenges. Demonstrable impact is emerging in all branches of science, in healthcare, in disease control, in pollution and climate change.

It is transforming business behaviours, operations and business models. In the insurance industry, for example, part of the yield on big data at the enterprise level happens to be risk mitigation – or even elimination. So big data elevates insurers’ abilities to understand and manage risk of almost any genre. The conversation we should be having in 2014, with some urgency, is whether the historically data deploying insurance industry is set to be revolutionised, to disrupt or be disrupted by big data. If not, from what does it, or other industries, derive this immunity?

Graphic courtesy of University of North Carolina - Charlotte

Graphic courtesy of University of North Carolina – Charlotte

What we use innovation for matters. It is depressing, if unsurprising, that some commercial big data applications are consumer manipulations disguised as consumer centricity. Big data concentrates immense and dangerously ungovernable power in the hands of a few. In the wrong hands – terrorist, criminal, governmental – everything good can be put to sinister use. Our big data business conversation cannot evade its social, philosophical and political relevance and risks, however daunting. Our conversation should also appreciate recent realisations of big data’s independent economic value, distinct from the functional purpose that first created it. Moreover, big data’s value is not depleted but expanded by use and reuse. This demands a major mental shift; historically data’s value, unless IP or specifically exploitable, derived from their ancillary support to a business function.

Big data’s value is not depleted but expanded by use and reuse.

Big data occupies a lead, not supporting, role as a strategic asset. Such attributes distinguish big data from the more traditional use of data— capturing data in production and archival systems, deploying historical data in myriad ways enhanced by analytics from process improvements to product development, segmentation and so on. We will need to be cautious not to conflate or even see as linear what we did with data before big data and what happens next.

What happens next goes to the heart of big data’s story and our own human story. Big data will transform the way we live, work, and think. So we must ask questions in thoughtful, inclusive conversations. Our leadership and global citizenship challenge is to co-author the story of what happens next.

The swift and the strong may win the short-term race to harness big data tools, but the uniquely human challenge in the long run will be to figure out where intuition, ingenuity, common sense, instinct and error belong in our brave new world.

About the Author: Karen Morris is a strategic advisor to national and multinational companies. She is also a frequent speaker and writer on innovation and leadership at global forums and conferences around the world.

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