Managing big data is critical for many organizations. Analytics can improve products and inform critical business decisions. Using data can provide distinct advantages, and it’s likely that an organization’s competitors are already leveraging their data. But if you have not started down the path yet, it can be a challenge to get your big data initiative off the ground.
Often the world of big data sounds like a magical place where smart data geeks just take data and come back with the answers to all of life’s questions. As you may suspect, it doesn’t actually work this way. There is hard technical work and even harder shifts in how organizational leaders think about the role of data. But the hard work is worth it if it makes the company better and customers happier, which we know is possible based on all the success stories that have been shared publicly. If you are wondering how to approach managing and leveraging data to improve your organization, the steps outlined below provide a way to approach data and analytics with a focus on building a foundation. This foundation will help an organization deal with big data (think many terabytes or petabytes). These steps are meant to drive a long term data focus so you may approach some of the steps in parallel and you will definitely iterate on the steps in the long run.
The first step in getting value from data is to collect it, big or small. Rather than spending days, weeks, or months discussing which data to collect I urge you to start with the mindset that all data related to your organization should be collected. I prefer collecting the data into one data ecosystem to minimize the challenge of finding the data when it’s time to do analysis, but even if you choose a decentralized approach to collection and storage it is important to set standards across departments. You should provide guidance across your organization on how data should be captured and history stored for all processes. You should aim to capture both local data as well as third party services you might use. You would expect to capture all the business-side data from CRMs (such as Salesforce), your company website, accounting systems, HR systems, online marketing tools, and so on. There is also a wealth of data to collect on the product or service you provide (web application). This could include data captured by the system, error and application logs, web analytics (such as Adobe or Google analytics), and customer feedback through surveys. Analysts in your organization will inevitably choose to tie together data from each source system at some point so storing it in one big data ecosystem (such as Hadoop) can decrease the effort needed to join the data together.
2. Make Available
The next focus is making sure those who want to get value from the data can access it. The data should be useful with tools they are able to use. For some teams this will be a spreadsheet and for others it will be more sophisticated reporting software. You will want to focus more on self-service when there is a lot of data to choose from. For big data environments you will want to eliminate roadblocks. A common roadblock is relying on a “one-off” data request process that relies on an overloaded engineering team to create or modify views specific to each analytics request. Ideally all of the data collected will automatically be available for analysts to pull into the tool of their choice without having to request it. Realistically, however, you will likely want to pick some high value data sets to start. This will allow you to think about how to make all the data available in the future without getting caught up with fully automating steps that might need to change once you have a little more experience.
Once you make your first data set available you should market it to the internal teams and offer support for them to get started. This part of the process is a great place to gather feedback on the value, utility and ease of use for others. With this feedback and the experience gained by collecting and making it available in your big data environment, you should be able to decide how to improve the process to be scalable for many more data sets.
Once your first data set is available, you should begin putting significant energy into training. You will need to educate analysts on retrieving data and your organization’s decision makers on how they can get the information they need from the data. You will need to cater to varying levels of technical proficiency ranging from those with formal technology training to those in business units who became analysts along the way, so several levels of training will be most effective. One of the goals of training is that department leaders should know what capabilities exist, in particular who they can talk to regarding their department’s data goals as well as any requests for analytics. You will need to provide the support for those individuals handling departmental analytics to be successful, especially in the early stages of your big data journey. A lot of the training time will be focused on making sure the data analysts/scientists can access the data and transform it in a way that fits their project, but you must not neglect making sure the department leaders know how involved they should be in driving the projects and understanding what was learned with each one.
To unlock the potential of big data, there is a vital need to trust others in your organization with the hard work of making sense of it. You can’t rely entirely on a central data team for all of your reporting and analytics. The reason you need to trust others in the organization is simple: there is too much data with too much potential to improve your organization to keep it locked up where only a small group of privileged data experts can access it. An exception to this is that you will still keep financial and personally identifiable information (PII) locked up tight. One example of trust is when an analyst has an idea to take product usage data and feed it into a model to determine what type of emails should be sent to improve conversions (more future purchases, longer retention, etc). Senior data scientists may have concerns about the analyst attempting this project on their own with no central data team experts available to partner on the project. When you have trust as a component of your data strategy, you should have an open communication channel for the work done by the analyst to happen independent from a central data team and be reviewed if needed. You have a mindset that the analyst can be trusted to be honest with their department leaders about their limitations and the department leaders will be careful to weigh the risks before rolling out customer impacting changes based on any analysis that hasn’t been vetted by the central data team. In practice, department leaders are unlikely to change strategy based on analysis that contradicts their experience and instinct, so the use of data is a step forward and carries a low risk of steering the organization in the wrong direction without proper due diligence.
There is a strong need in big data initiatives to focus on improvement as a consistent part of the work. Despite what you may have heard, big data systems are not cheap and the amount of data that can be collected is growing every year. Effective data initiatives are less about setting up a perfect process to organize people and more about building systems to automate the steps to collect data and make it available. For most organizations, taking an iterative approach to these steps is the best chance for success since results will be evident in a reasonable timeframe. You should focus on a single use case initially with a plan to refactor the process as you expand to more use cases. It is critical that you make time for the effort to refactor after the first project is deployed to production. This will allow your engineers to spend less time trying to develop perfect automated solutions for the ‘Collect’ and ‘Make Available’ steps and provide a chance for feedback and adjustments in the ‘Train’ and ‘Trust’ steps. Data engineers will find solutions to the collect and make available steps, but these alone will not provide the impact you desire without strong organizational effort to train and trust. All of the prior steps are opportunities to learn and most organizations will need to make adjustments to be successful regardless of how much time they spend on the planning and design.