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The big impact of big data on business and society

Kenny MacIver – November 2014
Perspectives on the potential for big data from Harper Reed, the former CTO of Obama for America, MIT professor of digital business Erik Brynjolfsson and other tech leaders.

The topic of big data moved onto the boardroom agenda in 2014, as organizations tried to grasp how the new capabilities for gathering and analyzing vast amounts of data would open up exciting new possibilities across both business and wider society. But, as several thought leaders have observed, the rise of big data has been accompanied by some concerns and misunderstandings.

There has already been too much focus put on the data infrastructure itself and how the data is managed and stored, says Harper Reed, the former CTO for the Obama for America, who led IT on the first political campaign to successfully exploit big data. But what CXOs actually care about, says Harper Reed, is not the sheer scale of all the data they can now get hold of and store, but how they can use it. “People are wrongly conflating all the hardcore ops and infrastructure behind big data with what people actually want: how to get answers to their questions,” says Reed, who now heads mobile commerce start-up Modest Inc.

Big data is already showing that potential in areas as far rangng as genetic mapping and peronalized ecommerce. According to Erik Brynjolfsson, professor of digital business at MIT, big data backed by the exponential growth in processing power and software technologies such as Hadoop, are allowing organizations “to make decisions that [simply] could not be made before, to handle all sorts of data questions.”

And that will have resounding impact. “We see this as just as profound an inflexion point as the first machine age,” says Brynjolfsson, refering to  how the Industrial Revolution transformed the world.

That transformation will be both broad and deep, say Tsuneo Kawatsuma, the CTO and CIO of global ICT company Fujitsu. “Big data will have an impact on all industries [and] every process,” he says. Its influence will be felt in business planning, research, sales, production and elsewhere. In Kawatsuma’s view, this amounts to nothing less than new industrial revolution.
Trust and customer experience

It is time for some soul-searching, argues Harper Reed, about just how valuable all of this data actually is and whether it all needs to be analyzed. “We do need to be more thoughtful about the data we store,” he says. “People are going to have so much data coming in that they'll find that, while they can store it all, they are not going to be able to use [large parts of it].” His suggestion: “It may be time to have more of feng shui approach to data, where we decide what data we want to have and what data we want to use.”

One of the areas that holds most potential for big data will be in the personalization of services for individual customers. “Big data uses data that places a greater focus on personal needs,” says Fujitsu’s Kawatsuma. That might mean that products such as a car could be tailored to individual needs and desires. As such, big data “will change our lives, in work and in leisure,” he concludes.

That ability to customize based on personal data raises all kinds of issues of individual privacy, though. “The issue of trust is a natural outgrowth of all the data that is flowing around,” observes Mark Hurst, business author and founder of Creative Good. “Only by creating a good experience for customers will organizations be able to establish a basis of trust,” he maintains.

Within business, CXOs may increasingly appreciate many of the opportunities and issues, but they still need to rely on the IT organization to deliver on big data’s potential.

While most data is generated by line-of-business units, the business people within those units may not understand the broad possibilities of how that data can be utilised, says Kawatsuma. “Only the IT division has the ability to handle big data [and as a result] from this point onwards, the IT division is going to be responsible for making innovation happen, with the CEO working in tandem with the CIO,” he says.
First published
November 2014
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About: Big Thinkers of 2014
Insight from management gurus and business authors Seth Godin, Erik Brynjolfsson, Vito Di Bari, Martha Heller and Mark Hurst, plus CTOs and CIOs Oliver Bussmann, Harper Reed, Jeroen Tas, Tsuneo Kawatsuma and Dr Joseph Reger.

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