In a recent speech, John Costello, former president of Dunkin Donuts, is reported to have said“Big data is not a strategy…”. Well…let me say that big data isn’t the answer.
I wish I had said that sometime in the past few years. I think I’ve similar things but I haven’t come right out and said those exact words (that I can recall). Again, I wish I had.
I hear people talking (and writing) about big data today. There are some folks out there that take a very common sense approach to big data, but quite a few have gone ‘ga ga’ over big data.
Blogs and articles are written that describe the utopia that big data can bring to an organization. They talk about how great big data is and what great things big data can bring. For the most part, these people are right. Big Data can bring great returns on the investments into the technology, systems and people…but big data isn’t the answer. Big data isn’t about finding answers…big data is all about finding more questions.
Big data isn’t a strategy and it surely isn’t the answer. Big data is just one more tool that can be used in the toolbox that an organization can use to improve.
Windows vs Mac vs Linux. Android vs iPhone. Nikon vs Canon vs Sony.
Spend any time online, with techie friends or with photographers and you’ll run undoubtedly come across arguments about which tech is better. You’ll have people calling others ‘fan boys/girls’ and in some areas you’ll see some downright nasty comments about whichever tech someone doesn’t agree with. You’ll see people commenting that Android (or iPhone) sucks, Linux (or Mac or Windows) is superior and Nikon (or Canon or Sony) is the only camera a ‘real’ photographer uses.
The problem with these types of debates is that they are generally not grounded in real-world experience. For example, the guy that adamantly argues that Nikon completely destroys Canon cameras in every area of competition has never shot anything other than a Nikon. His arguments are based on reading ‘tech specs’, blogs and forum posts about how much better Nikon is than Canon. Sure, there are valid ‘technical’ reasons for stating that one technology is better than another (e.g., the Nikon D810 DSLR has one of the highest DxOMark ratings ever at 97, versus the 81 given to the Canon 5D Mark III), but technical data isn’t the only way to measure technology.
In my experiences, how a person (or company) USES technology is more important than what technology they use. Take the Nikon vs Canon debate…fan-boys will throw the great results of the Nikon cameras into the faces of Canon users at every chance they get, but their argument becomes worthless when a photographer uses a camera that is about 8 years old to take a photo that wins the World Press Photo of the Year for 2015. Debating the technical merits of a technology is meaningless if you aren’t willing to step forward and actually use that technology (or any other technology) to deliver real-world results for yourself or your company.
The Android vs iPhone debate is another good example. You could spend days reading all the reviews, blogs and forum posts about how Android is better than iPhone (or vice versa). You could talk to endless friends and colleagues about which phone is ‘best’ but until you make the decision to buy one and start using it, you’ll never know how it will work for you. Honestly, 95% of users will find both the Android and iPhone to be comparable and never really need to know the difference in the two platforms/ecosystems…the phone will just work for them and they’ll be perfectly happy.
The same is true for 95% of businesses that choose one platform over another. As long as you’ve done your due diligence and ensured the platform that you’ve chosen will meet your needs, you’ll most likely be happy with whatever technology you choose. The technology debate is usually the wrong debate to have. The right debate to have is to focus on how you will use whatever technology you have (or might acquire) to deliver something of value to yourself, your family or your company. You can have the best technology in the world and still deliver terrible results or you can have technology that is one, two or even three generates behind the ‘modern’ tech and deliver award winning results.
Before I give you the passage, let me put the sentence into context. The CIO article is discussing a recent IDC report titled ‘IDC FutureScape: Worldside CIO Agenda 2016 Predictions.’ This report provides some predictions on what the CIO and IT will be focused on for the coming year(s).
The passage that caught my eye was this one:
According to IDC, the biggest issues in IT leadership will center on business needs, capabilities and availability related to digital transformation. The data shows that two-thirds of CEOs plan to focus on digital transformation strategies for 2016 and that CIOs will be major players in leading every department through this shift. In terms of capabilities, only 25 percent of CIOs report feeling confident in how they are driving new digital revenue streams.
When I read that paragraph, I was a bit perplexed as to how two-thirds of CEO’s will be focused on digital transformation and the CIO will a ‘major player’ in leading these initiatives while at the same time only one-quarter of CIO’s felt confident in how they and their teams are driving new digital initiatives and revenue streams.
Now – before anyone skewers me, I do realize that digital transformation is about much more than finding new revenue streams. Digital transformation covers all aspects of the business from finding new revenue streams to reducing costs throughout the business via technology. CIO’s know how to do the latter…but as we see from the survey, not many of them are confident they can do the former.
If CEO’s are going to be focused on digital transformation in 2016 and CIO’s are going to be one of the leaders of those initiatives, one would think that those CIO’s would be much more confident in their capabilities (and abilities) to drive revenue. Right?
Sure, CIO’s can help to drive digital transformation without ‘knowing’ how they are doing with digital revenue streams, but if I were a CEO, I’d want to know my CIO had a real handle on all things digital, including how digital is driving revenue. Alternatively, if I were a CIO and I knew the CEO was focusing on digital transformation, I’d be doing everything in my power to make sure I (and my team) were fully up to speed on what we were doing, planning to do and could potentially do in the coming year.
Based on the responses in this survey, I worry that the the CEO and CIO aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to digital transformation going into 2016.
One of the highlights is extremely important. It relates to the importance of finding actionable insights from big data and sharing those insights in a way that the organization can use. The quote is:
I think you need three ingredients. You need data, you need the right ways to combine the data and extract features from that data, and then the third ingredient is the ability to analyze the data and bring together the analysis results in a way that provides these insights and these measurable actions. … [They] need to be able to know what actions [they] need to execute in response to these analytics….
So many times when talking about big data, we get ourselves wrapped up in the technologies, processes and systems that we forget to think about the real reason we are even working with data in the first place. Data is near worthless until it is analyzed. Sure, you can put some ‘value’ on data but unless you turn that data into information (and then into knowledge) your doing nothing more than being a data hoarder.
So…to my data hoarding friends I say: Don’t focus on the data, focus on what the data tells you. I don’t care if you have 1 GB of data or 1 PB of data, if you can’t turn that data into information and then knowledge, your data initiatives aren’t going to succeed. Additionally, if you can’t communicate the insights gained from your analysis, your missing out on the real value in data analysis.
Big data doesn’t have to be used to solve big problems. Big data sure makes it easier to solve big problems, but you can just as easily use big data and data analytics to solve ‘smaller’ issues.
In fact, if your organization is just getting started in the world of big data, it makes sense to find a few smaller problems to try to solve. These small problems allow you to tweak your systems and processes to make sure you are gathering, storing and analyzing data correctly. These small problems also let you build up the appropriate skills within your teams to ensure when the big problems come along, your teams are ready to handle them.
Wouldn’t you feel better about your big data initiatives if you could ‘prove’ that the systems, processes and people were working effectively and giving output that can be believed? Most people would…and that’s why most organizations should start with these small projects. There’s nothing worse than getting 6 months (or a year) down the big data road and realize your data has been collected and stored in a way that makes it difficult to believe whether that data is correct and ‘clean’.
As important as making sure your systems, processes and people are working effectively is, it is just as important to make sure your organization is ready to accept the outcomes of any big data analysis. There’s nothing worse than spending time and money and realizing that your organization (or certain people within your organization) aren’t willing or able to accept the outcome of work performed analyzing the company’s data.
Starting small with big data lets you and your organization get comfortable with the entire process of collecting, storing, analyzing and reporting. Big data doesn’t have to require big projects, big budgets or big teams…especially when starting out.
A nice short post over on Farnam Street today highlights the various traps that people and companies can find themselves in when they begin looking at strategy and strategic planning. The article, titled “Six Strategy Traps“, highlights a passage from a great book on strategy by Roger Martin and A. G. Lafley titled “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.”
I’ve read the book and enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the particular passage that the author at Farnam Street highlighted in their post regarding the strategy ‘traps’. I won’t copy/paste it here (jump over and read it verbatim) but I did want to highlight the ‘traps’ and talk a bit about them.
The “Do it All Strategy”, “Something for Everyone Strategy” and the “Waterloo Strategy”
These three ‘traps’ are very similar in my mind. Many companies (and people) think that if they broaden their focus and try to make their offerings as broad as possible, they’ll bring more clients through the sales funnel and make more revenue. The problem with this approach is that if you aren’t able to focus (and you aren’t letting your teams focus), you’ll rarely be the leader in anything. Additionally, you’ll end up disappointing many of your clients because they’ll receive a product or service offering that is sub-par.
The “Don Quixote Strategy”
This is a dangerous strategy for any organization. It involves choosing the biggest and ‘best’ competitor and trying to knock them out of first place by competing head to head. While this strategy may appeal to the ego’s of many people, it is generally a terrible strategy for most companies. Where it does make sense is if you have a game-changing technology or service offering…but how many of those come along every year?
The “Program of the Month Strategy”
This is one that I’m sure everyone in the IT world has seen at one point in their career. This is the strategy trap that many CIO’s (and CMO’s?) fall into while chasing the latest and greatest technology and/or platform. This type strategy never works because you never give your team a chance to actually make the last one a viable strategy. This trap does nothing but keep people busy doing semi-important work but never really focused on the long-term work that needs to happen to make a strategy really work.
The “Dreams that Never Come True Strategy”
This trap is one of the most damaging ones to any organization. Companies can fall into this trap by always talking about a strategy and/or strategic plan but never actually putting the plan into action. Sure, they may think they are putting it into action but in most instances, they really never do. I’ve seen this one time and time again in companies…and those companies always fail because they can never marry the strategy with the execution necessary to make it happen.
Beware the Strategy Trap(s)
These traps are very good ones that I’ve seen many people / companies fall victim to a number of times. There’s no perfect strategy nor a is there a ‘recipe’ for a good strategy since each company’s objectives and goals are different.
What strategy traps can you think of or have you seen in practice during your career?
Eric D. Brown, D.Sc. is a technology consultant, investor and entrepreneur with an interest in using technology and data to solve real-world business problems. He currently runs his own consulting practice focused on helping organizations use their data more efficiently. Additionally, he is the Chief Information Officer of Sundial Capital Research, publisher of sentimenTrader
Eric received his Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) in Information Systems in 2014 with a dissertation titled “Analysis of Twitter Messages for Sentiment and Insight for use in Stock Market Decision Making”. His research interests are currently in the areas of decision support, data science, big data, natural language processing, sentiment analysis and social media analysis.In recent years, he has combined sentiment analysis, natural language processing and big data approaches to build innovative systems and strategies to solve interesting problems. You can read some of his research here: Eric D. Brown on ResearchGate
In addition, he is an entrepreneur that has launched a few companies with the most recent being a company focused on proving data analytics and visualization services to the financial markets.