July 11, 2013

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Freeing up Data

This blog is co-authored by Aneesh Gupta, (EMEA Innovations Lead) and Daniel Tuitt, (Innovation Consultant)

The internet has opened up access to data and information like never before. As a consumer, it is not only possible, but typically quite easy, to find nearly any information you are seeking. Why, then, is it so much more difficult for businesses to easily access important information? Data is critical to the success of any organization, yet companies prioritize data security over the ability to actually access and use it in order to make business decisions. Businesses often miss out on receiving any return on investment in capturing and storing data because that data is so restricted that it cannot be used in any meaningful way. In order to be a true business asset, businesses must find a way to free up their data.

Consumerization of Information

Historically, the search for information was a very work-intensive and manual process that took extensive periods of time; the most popular research methods included searching through thousands of pages of Encyclopaedia Britannica, researching in a library, or speaking to an expert.  Often, by the time the information was found, it was already out of date. In the business world, this often led to missed opportunities as companies were unable to access and make use of relevant data quickly.

The past two decades have seen a dramatic increase in the amount and type of information available, due to the exponential rate of data growth and the advancement of technology that has made it possible to capture such information. There has been an explosion of both structured and unstructured data that can be accessed and analyzed for all sorts of purposes. The more than 50 million tweets sent around the world every day are a testament to how far technology and data capturing has gone. Technology has made sharing knowledge and information far easier, and allows for much faster access, than ever before possible. Thanks to the Internet, it has become incredibly easy to find and access huge quantities of information almost instantaneously.

Data as a Business Asset

While the consumer world can access nearly any information they wish simply by typing a keyword or phrase into a search engine like Google, it is vastly more difficult for businesses to quickly find the information they need. Insights based on internal data, hidden behind firewalls from Google, are hard to come by.

In today’s fast-moving business world, companies cannot be competitive without putting their data to work. But there are a number of obstacles that companies must overcome in order to do so:

  • Collecting the vast amount of information out there
    • Relevant data takes all types of forms. From consumer information that provides insight into customer and market trends as well as individual customer preferences, to competitor data, to industry regulations and developments, there is no shortage of information that could help businesses make better decisions, if only they could capture it.
  •  Processing large amounts of data
    • The exponential growth in the data available to a business today is overwhelming. Even if a company is able to collect it, they must be able to quickly analyze such data in order for it to be useful.
    • New in-memory technology, including the much-hyped SAP HANA, is most likely the answer to quickly analyzing vast sums of data; however, implementing such technology comes with its own set of hurdles.
  • Providing access to data across the organization
    • Assuming data is properly captured and quickly analyzed, it is still no good to the company if that knowledge is not shared with the appropriate stakeholders.
    • Even data that is collected and stored for internal use is often so restricted within the organization that it is impossible for stakeholders to use it in any meaningful way.

If data really is an asset, and we would argue that it is one of the most important assets a business can obtain, it is only as valuable as an organization’s ability to actually collect, access and use it.

The Role of IT

IT departments today spend the bulk of their time storing, capturing and securing data, rather than making sure people can actually use it. Historically, a primary function of IT has been controlling the information that enters and leaves the company, and a major concern has always been ensuring the security of that data. Security is no less important today than it has been in the past, but it is beginning to come at a much higher cost, i.e. the inability to access critical information across the business. As time goes on, the growth in data has required IT landscapes to become more and more complex to both manage and secure all this information, leading to inconsistent or unavailable data across source systems and other departments. This is a problem for companies that need to use data as an asset.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in the role of IT departments to better balance the organization’s ability to both secure data, and ensure that it is accessible and usable. The mindset of IT needs to change from “nobody should have access to anything unless they have a good reason for it”, to “everybody should have access to everything unless there is a good reason they shouldn’t”. It may be scary for IT departments to adopt this more open approach, but the reward, in the form of far better decision-making, is well worth the risk. This transformation needs to occur through strong internal support to remove both cultural and technological barriers towards knowledge management systems to ensure better transfer of information throughout a firm.

Freeing Up Data

The challenge of being able to free up data will continue to grow as organisations seek to bring in more and more data, both structured and unstructured. As organisations continue to grow and expand, often globally, their ability to see an ROI on their efforts to capture and store data will become ever more critical. As such, businesses today need to make a concerted effort to free up the data in their organisation in order to ensure its usability. Some suggestions for freeing up data include:

  • Revamp IT policies and processes to both provide security and allow access to data.
  • Combine the organization's data and real-time decision-support tools with multi-dimensional analysis to unearth the right data that can be transformed into business intelligence.
  • Eliminate data silos
    • A single business warehouse that can capture and store data will allow organisations to see the “big picture” much faster.
  • Create a single business language to transform customer data into a language-agnostic version that is compatible with a business’ existing data.
  • Develop an infrastructure that enables easy searching and analysing of data within the company.
  • Provide strong internal support to remove technical and political barriers to knowledge transfer and data access across the company.

Going Forward

Over the past decade, the ability to manage large amounts of data has emerged as a challenge for businesses. But it is no longer about simple data management; the ability to collect, store, extract and access data, while still ensuring its security, should be the new focus of IT departments. The ability to innovate within this domain will be critical to the survival of many businesses that rely on analysing data, especially in this current volatile market. Companies that find ways to do this will allow employees to access and create reports on their own, finally empowering the key stakeholders who need to analyse information faster in order to unearth new opportunities for BI.

In light of global competition and economic turbulence, companies that wish to survive can no longer afford to continue operating in the same way. Organisations need to realise that data is a strategic asset: something to be protected, maintained and invested in.