More information leads to better decisions, and big data is providing companies with enough background to take much of the guesswork out of decision making.

“The larger the data set, the greater the context. Big data promises the tools to make observations much sharper and guide decisions based on facts or highly likely predictions, as opposed to intuition or sheer courage,” says Satyendra Rana, vice president at HTC Global.

Smart Business spoke with Rana about how companies can take advantage of big data and its potential for improvement and innovation.

What is big data?

Big data is a paradigm shift in the way businesses view and use data. For a long time, businesses focused on people, process and technology; data was considered a pain rather than an asset or an opportunity. Companies need to innovate and can no longer do so with the old approach. The new triangle is people, process and data, with technology as a substratum enabling all of those.

The first step to using big data is to look at what business outcomes are desired, then work backward and determine what data needs to be captured to glean those insights. A lot of that data might be internal, but business is not conducted in a vacuum — it needs to be understood in the context of markets, customers and suppliers. So there may be a need to gather external data to be correlated with the internal data. People have conceptions that big data initiatives have to necessarily use outside data, or that it’s only about outside data such as social media. It’s really more about what is done with the data than the source.

There are opportunities to collect data through various applications and sensors. Historically, it was a problem to collect data because it wasn’t readily available. For example, surveys were the main mechanism for collecting market data; you would need to approach 100 people to get 10 to respond. Now, people are volunteering information through mobile platforms and social media. Data is also being collected through instruments such as sensors on cars. Technology has made it cheaper to collect and store data, but businesses still have to take another step and leverage that data.

What are some of the applications?

The applications are everywhere, even though the most frequent uses are seen in marketing. Understanding customers better leads to improved relationships and more cross-selling and upselling. But big data insights can also improve operational efficiencies. For example, supply chain decisions about what products to stock in the warehouse can be influenced by big data. Insights could also lead to entering into new lines of business that weren’t considered. Further, a consumer using his or her credit card at a large retailer might be sent an alert offering a coupon for lunch at a partnering restaurant. The credit card company knows from its data that the customer eats lunch at this time and one of its restaurant partners is nearby, so it tries to predict behavior in real time. When the person uses the coupon, the credit card company gets a share. That’s a new line of business based on information the company had and was not utilizing.

How can companies get started on big data initiatives?

That’s an issue companies are struggling with. A data governance strategy is needed to deal with the amount of data that is received. You have to understand what is coming in and how it can be used. The most important step is to realize that big data is not just a technology issue, which can be a difficult task internally. Big data requires the business and IT sides to work together more closely than in the past. If big data is approached as an IT issue, its full benefit will not be realized. If it’s a business process and IT is involved only in terms of what storage to buy or application to install, companies may not quite understand what is possible.

Big data is changing the way businesses approach the fundamental need to innovate and create differentiation. For the past 20 years, innovation was about streamlining processes such as supply chains. Big data provides a new field for innovation by providing insights quickly and in more creative ways. Eventually, businesses will not have a choice; they will have to deal with big data in order to innovate and survive.

Satyendra Rana, Ph.D. is vice president at HTC Global. Reach him at (512) 773-0357 or satyendra.rana@htcinc.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by HTC Global Services

Published in Chicago