EY’s Board Matters quarterly from January 2014 focuses on the board’s role in corporate big data initiatives, and lists questions about big data that board members should be asking company executives:

  • Does the company know which data is relevant and can help drive value? What is the plan for collecting and analyzing this data?
  • What is the company’s strategy for capturing the appropriate data and what is the methodology for identifying meaningful data?
  • What human, technical and other resources are being devoted to the effort? What additional resources might be appropriate?
  • How much is the organization spending on big data initiatives and how will the success of those expenditures be measured?
  • How is the organization preparing to manage future costs related to big data?
  • What are the expected outcomes and how will such outcomes drive value for the organization?

According to EY, “Boards cannot be involved in the day-to-day activities of managing big data and big data costs. But in discussions with the CEO and other C-level executives, board members should insist on clarity of vision and collaboration across all disciplines to maximize the return on any investment in big data.”

Like the technology wave of cloud computing that preceded it, big data is a technology mystery to board members that they feel obligated to understand and to ask questions about as part of their board responsibilities. Board meetings — and board members who ask pointed questions — make many C-level executives nervous because they are still getting on top of big data. How do you answer a question about big data technology return on investment (ROI) when you haven’t run the technology long enough to ascertain it? How can you be sure if you are capturing all of the big data you require in your analytics when new data sources are appearing every day, and there is also the other side of the process — ensuring that data extraneous to the process doesn’t delay or skew results?

“As analytics solution providers, we often get asked by executives at our clients’ companies to assist in a consultative capacity,” said Srikanth Velamakami, CEO and founder of Fractal Analytics. “In one case, a CEO was approached by his board, and was asked to give a presentation at the next board meeting about how the company was leveraging its data better, and what business trends were indicated in this data. Boards also want to know how big data can be monetized, how operations, service and marketing can be improved, and how persistent areas of challenge like unplanned inventory can be worked on with big data.”

Interestingly, pressures from the board are seldom cited as a driver of big data initiatives in companies, but they are; in turn, these pressures are passed along from the C-level to middle managers in the company who are charged with carrying out the projects and the analytics. If similar board pressures were felt concerning the efficiency of supply chains, or the quality of the organization’s customer experience, it is possible that these problems wouldn’t be as long-standing as they have proven to be.

This is why the internal champions of big data should be happy that the board “is in” on big data. It’s not that top management doesn’t care about big data, but there are many priorities that these executives are asked to address, so it’s easy to lose focus on the ones that the board doesn’t always ask about.