The emergence of big data in the boardroom

With more than 1.8 zettabytes of information created in 2011 (which would require 57.5 billion 32 GB iPads to store!) and 2.5 quintillions pieces of data being churned out every day according to IBM, big data has become a serious business issue for enterprises of all sizes. While it is not a new phenomenon, how big data is being used is evolving. The real question is how C-suite executives will interact with the ever growing data demand.

It is now essential for every executive to harness the volume of data in order for them to understand their business and deliver increased value to the company.

By doing this they will have the key to competitive differentiation; by understanding what trends are coming up in the pipeline, tracking social networks to measure customer sentiment in real-time, and supporting business decisions that leaves rival companies behind, and deliver a competitive advantage.

It is important to remember that big data means different things to different companies e.g. POS and inventory data from a retail perspective to real time pressure sensors in Oil & Gas industry, to historical citizen data in government for example.

Sybase recently carried out a C-Suite study, commissioning a 14-questions online study of employees in the US conducted by Harris Interactive to explain what big data means to an organisation. When asked whether they consider big data as a challenge vs. an opportunity, three quarters (76 per cent) of C-suite executives view big data as more of an opportunity for their company, compared to more of a challenge (24 per cent).

This means that big data is no longer the reserve of the IT and analyst teams. It’s vital that it can now be easily accessed by the C-suite in real-time in a way that is visually compelling and simple to understand. This means having the right tools for different users from a KPI driven dashboard for the execs, rich visualisation tools for the casual user and predictive analysis capability and deep drill down for the data analyst.

Two years ago, CEOs were only using their BlackBerry devices to receive e-mails. Now, with the C-suite bringing smartphones and tablets into the boardroom, they can bring data to life through applications instantly. This increases the speed of decision-making tenfold.

Therefore moving data around so that the information is available on Monday morning is crucial to making this information useful. Board members have seen the value that analytics offer them and now want to use that data residing in their organisation to manage and lead the business more effectively.

While many are indicating this trend to be at least among their top strategic priorities for 2012, in a survey carried out by McKinsey & Company released in May 2012, the company found that out of the 1,500 executives surveyed, roughly half place this trend within their top 10 priorities. One-quarter indicate it to be a top three priority, and only nine per cent said it was their top priority, which means that there is still a long way to go and those unaware will fall behind.

Those who are engaged understand that cycle times are in their favour if they put the mandate through the organisation that data needs to be available and made useful through better technology.

But what can they use this information for? The C-Suite Harris survey found that a wide majority of C-suite executives (93 per cent) could identify competitive advantages that their company would gain by utilising big data. The top five anticipated competitive advantages were found to be: improving efficiency in business operations (59 per cent), increased sales (54 per cent), lowering IT costs (50 per cent), increasing business agility (48 per cent), and attracting and retaining customers (46 per cent).

A couple of examples were real-time analytics such as SAP HANA have a major impact are in healthcare patient care and the retail industry. In healthcare SAP HANA is able to analyse huge patient population regarding participation in care plans, quickly monitor patients and their care plans and provide quick feedback and monitor and report outcomes of prevention programs. In retail it can help with real time sales analysis, POS data management out of stock analysis and extended consumer behaviour analysis.

SAP HANA and Hadoop are not mutually exclusive. Together they are a powerful combination in terms of speed of in-memory computing and large volume in data with Hadoop. When you put this in the cloud, you gain speed and flexibility with your big data that was never before possible.

When asked about which business areas were receiving significant growth/ benefits from the utilisation of big data already, the survey found that a vast majority of C-suite executives (94 per cent) identified significant growth or benefits with the top five areas being; information technology (IT)/MIS (58 per cent), sales (57 per cent), marketing (54 per cent), customer service (54 per cent), and production/operations (46 per cent).

CEOs are now fully aware that their companies collect and maintain massive amounts of data but to get it to be useful, the C-suite must engage with this trend in a way not done before. In a world where the need for solutions is moving faster and the tolerance of people is decreasing, executives can not shy away from incorporating big data projects but should rather see it as a huge competitive opportunity and advantage to stay ahead of the game.

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