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Big data this, big data that. Hardly a day goes by when we’re not bombarded with messages about the big data platforms and technologies that will solve all our marketing problems. Let’s be honest though: these tools and technologies alone simply won’t solve the big data challenge. But the effect of all that media and market hype?

A lot of confusion and mistrust on the part of marketing leaders about what big data really is, what it can do, and how it should be incorporated into business strategy. And that’s holding a lot of firms back from maximizing the power of the data at their disposal.

By now you’re asking yourself how anything I’ve said so far is different or unique. Here it is: “big data” isn’t about exabytes or petabytes. It’s not about velocity. It’s not a project or Hadoop or any other single thing. Big data is a journey that every company must take to close the gap between the data that’s available to them, and the business insights they’re deriving from that data. This is a definition that business and technology leaders alike can understand and use to better win, serve, and retain customers.

My colleague, Brian Hopkins, and I have just published a pair of reports — researched and written in parallel — to help our marketing and technology management clients work together to tackle the opportunities and challenges of big data. Here are a few of the most interesting “a-ha” moments of the research:

  • No industry is immune to the disruptive potential of the data explosion. We’ve all heard the stories about healthcare, media, and travel. But even one of the most traditional industries in the world — agriculture — is using data to transform itself. John Deere Company’s Farmsight is truly visionary: it turns farming into a high-tech, data savvy business that helps farmers balance intuition (qualitative) with data-driven (quantititative) insights.
  • Doing big data doesn’t come without a few risks. We’ve all seen the White House’s report on the privacy risks of big data, and of course those risks are significant. But it doesn’t stop there. Business that start leveraging more data for better insight also need to prepare for the unknown financial liabilities of big data (the fines and lawsuits against companies that “misuse” data are just beginning). But beyond that, big data challenges us to ask, “just because we can, should we?” The question applies to everything from using customer data to predict sensitive health conditions to whether parole boards should be required to rely on statistical models to predict recidivism.
  • The old way of defining big data just doesn’t cut it anymore. We’ve spent the last half decade focused on three Vs (volume, velocity, variety) that attempted to describe what big data was, but didn’t tell us a thing about what it could do. It’s time for us to focus on the how and why of data. We think that means mastering context, changing your organizational culture, developing the right capabilities, and yes, acquiring the capacity to transform your data into insight.
  • Finally, tech managers can’t do this alone; business leaders need to step up. Do we expect you to become a technologist overnight? Of course not. But it’s imperative that marketers become willing stakeholders in the big data journey. You must help your technology peers understand your business challenges, and your vision for how you will be engaging your customers in the future, whether that’s 12 months or five years from now. You must be an advisor to the technology strategy process and, conversely, include BT in the buying process for outsourced marketing technology solutions. Your ability to bridge this yawning gap will transform your organization’s approach to big data.

It’s been an enlightening and rewarding process to work with Brian these past several months, to understand his perspective as an enterprise architect, and to hear about the challenges that his clients face. In other words, we put ourselves in your shoes! I hope you’ll spend some time with these two foundational reports for CIOs and marketing leaders, and share them with your technology counterparts.