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Ways to Get Business Results from Big Data

Applying actionable intelligence


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The focus of “big data” has snowballed into a near frenzy as every company large and small tries to leverage its social media and information technology capabilities to gather increasingly detailed information about their business. Theoretically, the reams of incoming numbers are supposed to lead to better decisions yet companies find themselves confronted with a common information-age question: Now that we have all this data, what do we do with it?

In his book, Actionable Intelligence, Keith Carter, who helped establish the global intelligence operations for Estée Lauder and is now Visiting Senior Fellow at NUS Business School in Singapore, offers a framework for gathering the right data — more is not merrier in this case — and for transforming that data into action initiatives.

The problem for many companies is that they accumulate all the data they can possibly accumulate without having an idea of what they need, or what they might already have. The first step, according to Carter, is to start with the strategic questions that need to be answered, such as: How can we increase sales and service? How can we reduce returns and quality issues? How can we answer the needs of our customers best? Build on these questions, Carter writes, to discover the business situation of the company — a process known as “business discovery.”

Only after the strategic questions have been determined — and some idea of what kind of data will answer these questions has been formulated — should the company move to the data acquisition phase — the second step in Carter’s four-step framework. The third step of Carter’s process is to visualize the data so that stakeholders can see the relationships among the numbers and therefore understand the implications of the data. The final step is to take action, which can cover a wide variety of business priorities, including identifying bottlenecks or causes of errors, identifying emerging trends, managing customer acquisition costs, evaluation potential acquisitions and much more.

Carter’s background in real world business intelligence ensures that his four-step SWAT process (Strategic business questions, Wrangle data, Answer with visualization and Take action) is not just a PowerPoint-friendly methodology.

His section on wrangling the data, for example, includes recommendations for a “data dictionary” and a “data dashboard” — tools that help manage the sometimes-numbing influx of raw data. The data dictionary provides the database translation for what users see on their screen (to use Carter’s example, the screen says “shoe” but the database says “product ID QB1234567”). In addition, as Carter explains, the data dictionary will be a record of “who owns the data, who gave you access to the data, how frequently you can get the data, and how you can pull the data in.”

A “data dashboard” uses the colors of a stoplight (red, yellow, green) to show the current data situation. On a sample dashboard, process strength might be green (easy to process the data) while input capability might be yellow (a bit tricky to input new data), and review/validate capacity might be red (difficult to validate the information). In Carter’s experience, many company data dashboards are filled with red at the
start of the process, reflecting the lack of formal data management.

For Carter, it’s also very important for data acquisition teams to validate the data with the data owners (those who will use the data). In other words, data owners should be asked, “Is this good data, the data that you need and that you can trust?”

“Big data” is a popular buzz phrase ringing throughout the offices, hallways and boardrooms of companies today. A process-focused book such as Actionable Intelligence provides a sober roadmap for business leaders looking for implementation tools and guidance more than journalistic hyperbole.


Actionable Intelligence: A Guide to Delivering Business Results with Big Data FAST!
Keith B. Carter, published by Wiley, October 2014, ISBN: 978-1118915233


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