Assemble the Knights of the Big Data Round Table!

    Is Big Data Better Outside of IT?” asked an Information Management article by Forrester’s Michele Goetz last month.

    I thought it was an odd question at the time — probably because I spent about three years of my life writing about IT/business alignment.

    “Big data is creating a bigger divide between the business and IT,” Goetz wrote. “It could be skills. It could be technology. It could be IT’s ability to support the business when the business needs it. It could be all of those things.”

    “Shouldn’t we be past this by now?” I thought, but I mentally bookmarked it. It came to mind again this week when I read this tidbit in Insurance & Technology:

    “A recent survey by Neolane and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) found that many marketers are ill-equipped to handle the influx of growing data and are behind in planning for tremendous growth. Specifically, 60 percent of those surveyed noted that they do not currently have or are unsure if their company has a specific strategy for handling its challenges — because big data is still an emerging concept, it’s not uncommon to see differing perspectives about what it is and what it means.”

    Marketers are interested in Big Data for good reason. As Jill Dyché pointed out in an ITBE interview, business gets this industry message that Big Data is a business problem and the value Big Data sets like social media or call logs can bring to marketing and other business units.

    But when they show up to learn more, they find themselves trapped in very technology-focused events, she said.

    “It’s fascinating to see the reality versus the hype,” Dyché said. “Business people are in the middle saying, ‘Wow, I should be doing this stuff, I should know this stuff, but here I am, listening to all this messaging around why SQL is dead.’”

    Maybe it’s time Big Data vendors hosted a separate conference or, at a minimum, a separate conference track for these befuddled business folks.

    Actually, it’s funny to read the Insurance & Technology piece, because while it’s targeting marketing people specifically, much of it is still about the technology. For instance, there’s a long list of questions marketers should ask about Big Data, which one would think would be focused on marketing problems like, “What can we learn that we can’t learn from other sources,” or “How can Big Data help us better measure our marketing initiatives and product marketing spend?”

    Instead, the list is incredibly similar to what you’d hear if you were a CIO or involved in the technology end of data management:

    • How will data be captured from multiple entry channels?
    • How will legacy data be incorporated?
    • What about data quality and matching?
    • How will unstructured data be dealt with, such as Tweets, blogs, Facebook posts and the text, symbols and html links they might contain?

    Even in their own publications, marketers can’t get a break when it comes to Big Data.

    Not that the questions aren’t important business issues, but, for most of them, most of the answers could be more easily provided by IT. Do CEOs and CFOs really want to pay two divisions to think through and solve the same issues?

    Maybe, and this is just me talking off the top of my head, but maybe it’s time to bring some good, old-fashioned IT/business alignment to Big Data. Maybe its time we brought Knights of the business and IT together at a Big Round Table to discuss Big Data.

    There are a couple of ways to achieve this. One is to, you know, talk to one another. IT must know that marketing has a nearly Pavlovian response to the idea of social media data.

    So instead of assuming marketing will wait until you’re ready, why not take a walk down to marketing and start the conversation? That seems much preferable to learning marketing outsourced all its Big Data problems to someone else just a month before your Hadoop cluster finally came online.

    But if that’s just too much crazy, then start a Big Data Competency Center that brings your Big Data experts and interested parties together to talk about how you want to pursue Big Data. Among the topics you should cover:

    • What business problems might benefit from applying Big Data sets and technologies?
    • How do we prioritize these?
    • Should we in-house or outsource this effort? If we outsource, how will that impact our ability to roll this out to the business as a whole?
    • What external datasets do we need to obtain?
    • How can we share the costs of Big Data?
    • How can we invest in Big Data in ways that will allow us to expand the benefits into other business units or at least other business problems?
    • Do we want to commit to open source tools or choose a proprietary solution? How will that decision affect our ability to use Big Data now? How will it impact our ability to roll this out to other divisions?

    It’s been a while since people seriously talked about achieving IT/business alignment, so here’s a bit of a refresher course, just in case anyone’s gotten rusty.

    When it comes to IT/business alignment, there are four essential practices to bring to your Big Data Round Table:

    • Involve both IT and the business stakeholders (as many as you can).
    • Prioritize and start with the business discussion, then move into the technology.
    • Make it an ongoing discussion, not a one-time meeting.
    • Listen respectfully.

    Big Data may seem like the Holy Grail for marketing and IT, but it’s actually a much more achievable quest. Still, when is it ever a bad idea to have your own Round Table, or the Knights to go with it? Never – that’s when.

    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson
    Loraine Lawson is a freelance writer specializing in technology and business issues, including integration, health care IT, cloud and Big Data.

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