Technology has long been touted as the big disruptor of this century. But with the advent of the global Coronavirus pandemic, digital transformation has so far been an ally in overcoming the challenges of Covid-19 disruption, with technology helping us better understand virus epidemiology.
Big data is one technological trend that is key to tracing and defeating the virus, and will likely play a part in the development of a vaccine. The technology is already baked-in to many industries; most consumers have experienced its benefits with offerings such as Siri, Alexa and Google Voice Search. Those tools make sense of what you’re saying and respond thanks to mind-boggling volumes of voice data, analytics and machine learning.
For businesses looking to gain a competitive advantage from big data and analytics, they must also address the human side of that digital transformation. There are many benefits on the table, but in order to pull up a chair, we need to understand who’s already sitting there and what’s on offer.
What does “big data” mean for my business?
Put simply, ‘big data’ is a dataset that grows so large it needs support from custom frameworks, such as algorithms for analytics. Depending on the industry, that information could mean geological data, customer location data, online activity data, historical data, financial data, voice, etc. The challenge with big data is in the name, it’s big and unwieldy, making it mostly useless without the other parts: relevant storage systems and analytics.
It’s big business. According to Grand View Research Inc prior to the Coronavirus, “The big data market is expected to reach USD 123.23 billion by 2025.”
It’s not just powering your Netflix recommendations; big data matters to everyone and every business. Think about choices you would make in business if you could more accurately predict outcomes. If you wanted to know when to launch a product, where to drill for resources, or whether it’s wise to invest, having more knowledge (or datasets) is immensely useful. But the competitive advantage comes from analysing that data to glean useful information for decision making.
There’s a reason market leaders are so interested in this field, because as information becomes more readily accessible, it can threaten companies that rely on proprietary data as a competitive asset.
Can any business use big data and analytics?
Businesses of all sizes can gain a competitive advantage with big data and business analytics. However, what most don’t have is the organisational structure to implement it. At their core, every organisation could be thought of as a highly complex decision making machine. People at every level – including the customer – make choices based on available knowledge to influence an outcome.
Without big data and business analytics, people are dealing with infinite variables and limited knowledge (we don’t know what we don’t know) meaning choices are often a best guess or hopeful prediction. Usually it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
“Big Data is not about the Data. It is about the Analytics” – Gary King, Professor, Harvard University
In other words, it’s not about the size, it’s how you use it.
Every business is filled with unstructured data, and every business has access to the web (with third-party data mechanisms such as cookies still available for the time being). Many businesses are not leveraging a fraction of even their first-party data to gain a competitive advantage. However, there is a risk that with so much data controlled by a few large tech companies, it could create barriers to entry in the future and stifle innovation.
How can I leverage big data to gain a competitive advantage in my industry?
Big data and analytics are already being used to power innovations and give businesses a competitive advantage. Tools are being used right now to deliver investment advice, to manage vehicle autopilot systems, and help retailers to predict potential purchases. Firms that may not consider themselves a ‘tech company’ are leveraging this technology for many reasons.
Analytics is huge in resource extraction and exploration for example. Companies can gather historical and complex geological data to more accurately predict where wells should be sunk. It’s a vital tool in performance forecasting, automation of work, predictive maintenance, logistics analysis and location-based technologies for monitoring potentially dangerous situations.
Improve Customer Experience
Customer mapping allows businesses to better understand consumer behaviour, likes and dislikes, and even when and where a purchase will most likely be made. When calls are recorded for quality and coaching purposes, that data can be used to better help in similar situations. Overall, data is being used to improve customer experience and reduce the cost-per-acquisition
Assist with Efficiencies
Many fintech firms are at the forefront of using these tools for delivering advice to their customers. High-frequency trading is now the norm at stock exchanges, where computer algorithms buy and sell in fractions of a second. At the extreme end, this has become an arms race, with trading firms attempting to get their physical location closer to the central exchange in order to cut down on transfer time through fibre-optic cables.
Creating a Connected Workplace
AI-powered organisational analytics are being studied to determine teams that work well together, develop process efficiencies and improve the use of space in workplaces. On visiting MIT in late 2019, I had the opportunity to talk with Alex `Sandy’ Pentland, one of the ‘seven most powerful data scientists in the world,’ whose focus was using big data to understand patterns of employee interaction and communication in organisations. Read more about his work with sociometric badges here.
The human side of big data
Okay, so gathering and using all this information is great, but using big data and analytics isn’t just a switch that businesses can flick, or a new piece of software that will run everything. I cannot overstate the importance of a well-led business transformation strategy when embracing technology. A holistic view of the organisation is needed to fully realise the benefits to people and the environment, and gain a competitive advantage.
Tech is just one part of the dataset. In this time of change and beyond, it’s worth looking at three elements: culture, capability, and strategy.
- What purpose do you serve?
- Who do you serve?
- How do we (and could we) connect with customers?
- What has COVID19 surfaced about your organisational capabilities?
- What are you good at?
- What are the organisation’s strengths?
- What will you need to be excellent at to thrive and survive?
- How will technology enable your purpose and vision?
- What role will technology play?
- Who do you need to partner with?
First, start with your customers. Consumers have always looked to businesses that they believe will help them achieve their aims. But in the current Covid-19 climate, have their needs or habits changed? You may need to revisit your customer modelling to understand their priorities and determine how it is that your organisation will be helpful.
We’ve seen in the US how the struggling automotive industry has diverted some of their resources to create medical ventilators. Fashion houses in New York have switched away from haute couture during this time to make surgical masks. These changes may or may not be permanent, but they will be remembered in the minds of the public.
If you don’t yet have the ability to extract meaningful insights, this might be the place to start and accelerate your learnings. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
From there, and deciding if there’s a challenge that big data, analytics or a different digital transformation could help your organisation overcome, we need to think about how to implement it. Digital transformation needs to be integrated with change management, not managed separately.
How will your leadership adapt to new technology?
I’ve written previously about how tech will transform leadership, in particular, how it will affect HR in their hiring and upskilling aims. As automation makes some tasks and roles obsolete, big data and AI are helping people gain a competitive advantage in their career by recommending additional training and pairing them with tailored job alerts.
How will the organisation and individuals change?
Many organisations have moved to remote working and collaboration platforms out of necessity. Even if we’re all ‘back in the office’ in a few months, platforms can provide rich ground for insights, e.g. Howspace uses AI to explore key themes from collaboration.
Organisations by their nature look to maintain lean, efficient operating models. Automation should be part of digital strategy, in that it’s focussed on removing the mundane and routine. With tracking and analysis we can hope to better understand which tasks can and should be automated to liberate talent.
Automation, big data and AI have enormous potential for organisations and those working within them. Perhaps paradoxically, there is often resistance to such changes due to fear and uncertainty. For many, a job is strongly linked to their identity, and the risk of change rendering them redundant represents not only a financial chasm, but an existential one.
And that’s the final thing that I’d like to touch on. Creating and maintaining psychological safety is an oft-overlooked component in a changing landscape. When upheaval is the norm, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we are human first, and our job titles are transient. Perhaps now, the major competitive advantage is maintaining our care for one another and helping each other through these times of change.
Need help managing Digital Transformation?
Technological change means cultural change. The long-term success of any organisation will come down to how it manages those changes on every level. As leadership and business transformation consultants, the Keogh team are attuned and experienced in the human side of digital transformation, and welcome partnerships with your organisation in this state of flux.