Monthly Archives: March 2013

Big Data = Big Deal?

Guess you’ve all seen the sudden explosion of articles about big data recently – you can hardly load a webpage without seeing it mentioned – and a number of questions may have come to mind. Things like

  • How can I help my clients take advantage of it?
  • How can I leverage it in my business?
  • Do I have any of my own?
  • Is it really as big as the media says, or is it all hype?

I’m going to look at each of these questions – and probably some others – over the next few weeks, and share what I believe to be useful and how data can be leveraged for you and your clients. I say data in general because from a business perspective it doesn’t really matter if your data is big or small – it’s part of a total approach.

Let’s look at the last question first – is big data really a big deal? To start to answer this question, let’s look at understanding some things about data generally.

Think of data like water. Water is a resource that can be scarce or abundant and historically, we didn’t know what it was made of. We didn’t know its chemical makeup, what properties it held, how pure or impure it was. We only knew it was water. When it was scarce, we moved in deserts from oasis to oasis, getting small amounts out of the ground with great difficulty. In abundance, we crossed oceans made of it, not seeing into its depths and understanding what secrets it held. In essence we held neither a micro nor a macro view – we were at the same level.

Nowadays, we understand water differently. We know what it’s made of chemically and we know that it may contain various different substances while still maintaining the same appearance. We have better ways of detecting it in environments where it’s scarce and better ways of getting it out of the ground. We no longer only float on top of oceans – we build pictures of what lies underneath and detect currents and patterns across large areas.

At one time, a cup of water only quenched a thirst. Now, it holds the answers to many other questions.

With data – particularly big data – we’ve followed a similar path to a greater understanding. In the past for organizations and for society at large, information could be scarce. We’ve known that events have occurred but we haven’t known all of the details about them. Analysts traipse from system to system, copying information from one Excel sheet to another trying to get a picture of what’s happening. We’ve floated on top of information that is unknown, un-described, or both; a bit like old-time mariners, sometimes feeling there’s a storm coming with no way to see the currents that really tell the story, not seeing the shark until it attacks.

Now, information generally has become more abundant and available to both individuals and organizations. We can identify and describe each element of a particular event and save that information for later. We have better ways of discovering and aggregating data, saving the time and effort involved in pulling information together into one place. Now we can choose to float on top of the data, look at its currents and patterns from different perspectives, or we can look at the data itself and understand what parts are needed to answer a particular question and what is not.

So is big data a big deal? Fundamentally yes, but this new abundance has its own challenges. Data now comes out of a fire hose and we have to figure out not just how to sip from it, but how to siphon only what we need. How do we know what we need? This is the next question I’ll be looking into.

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Back to the beginning…

For those of you that haven’t seen The Princess Bride, you should. It’s a swashbuckling film with true love and true humour that still feels as good to see today as when it was released in 1987. Even better, it’s given me one of my all-time favourite reminders that I use at work all the time. When things get too confusing and a project feels like it has lost focus, run out of steam or is just plain failing, go back to the beginning – to your first principles.

In the movie, Inigo, a sword-for-hire, has received setbacks that threaten to undo his life’s work – taking revenge on the man who killed his father. Inigo has been defeated in a sword fight by a mysterious man in black, his best friend was beaten by the same guy and then his boss was killed. It seems like everything has fallen apart and so he goes to where his employer, Vizzini, always threatened to take him – back to the beginning. “The beginning”, as Vizzini saw it, was Inigo lying drunk on the bad side of town with no money and no friends. But, it’s only once he’s back at the beginning – drunk at the bottom of the barrel – that he can re-focus on what he wants to accomplish and what he needs to get there. Inigo realizes that the source of his misfortunes, the mysterious man in black, is actually the one person that will help him reach his objective.

This is not to say that mysterious strangers are always the answer, but it’s easy on projects to get distracted and find yourself unintentionally travelling in circles. When this happens, stop, take a breath and go back to the beginning. What is the objective? What’s the primary use case you’re seeking to serve? It’s only once you’ve done this that you’ll be able to move forward again.

Enter the Success Manager

I’m seeing more and more ads in the US for “Customer Success Managers” at technology companies such as Salesforce.com, Birst and Citrix, to name only a few. This is partly just a change in nomenclature as I’m pretty sure these companies all used to have account managers, but there a different flavour to these ads. They’re less sales-orientated and more about the longer-term success for the client in their use of technology. This is an excellent development in the marketplace and a trend that will hopefully continue.

Why? Because technology companies used to be a little bit lazy about customer care. They could sell products that would support a client’s business for a couple of years at a time. The sales team would make a sale and think that they could rest easy, touching base with the client executives at  infrequent intervals with the Support team interacting more regularly at the lower levels. Now, as the pace of change increases and every business adapts to its market at ever-faster rates, no product remains static. New features and functionality are demanded on a daily basis and new metrics are available through which a client can understand whether or not anyone is using the solution they’ve paid for. The client is more engaged than ever in their technology solution and as a result the solution provider has to stay in every conversation. It’s the only way to help clients adopt new ways of working and understand what they may need next.

This is the focus of these types of roles – not just selling but engaging, listening and advising at several different levels to prevent valuable clients from churning out of the business. If you’re not following this approach, you may keep the top of the sales funnel full but find that clients end up dropping out downstream.