Big data is most
often spoken of in light of trying to find the right metrics to measure for corporate
success; trying to recruit or develop the necessary big data skillsets for and
within the enterprise; and  investing in
big data technology that can unearth information from data for ground-breaking
insights.

Big data risks are mentioned, too. They typically come in the form of
enterprise fears of missing market windows because businesses can’t launch
their big data initiatives fast enough — or fears of investing in the wrong technologies
and approaches due to a lack of experience with big data on both the business
and technology sides.

However, just as
important are the relatively unsung areas of big data risk that few organizations
are giving much thought to as they hurl themselves full speed into a big data “arms
race.” These unsung risks are embodied in the changes that big data is
going to make to the people and the practices within organizations and whether
enterprises are really going to end up with better or more clouded insights as
a result of their big data forays.

The dilemma was recently
touched on in The Wall Street Journal in a big data article by John Jordan (WSJ subscription required):

“In our
rush to embrace the possibilities of big data, we may be overlooking the challenges
that big data poses — including the way companies interpret the information,
manage the politics of data and find the necessary talent to make sense of the
flood of new information. Big data, in other words, introduces high stakes to
the data-analytics game. There’s a greater potential for privacy invasion,
greater financial exposure in fast-moving markets, greater potential for
mistaking noise for true insight, and a greater risk of spending lots of money
and time chasing poorly defined problems or opportunities. Unless we
understand, and deal with, these challenges, we risk turning all that data from
something that has the potential to enhance our organizations into a diversion,
an illusion or a paralyzing turf battle.”

The WSJ talked
about people who “may try to game the system — to the detriment of the
company.” It cited the example of a company that goes from a successful
sales lead development program achieved through trade shows and conferences to the
measurement of sales lead success through a tracking of Twitter mentions,
website clicks, and social media traffic reported through high-level dashboards
with an ultimate consequence of losing profits.

So if big data
isn’t the right solution for every situation, where are the risks of not
managing where you use big data greatest, and what steps can you take to avoid overexploiting big data to the company’s detriment?
Here’s my take.

1: Big data is not a perfect art or
science.

Big data and analytics
have been used by universities and research institutions for decades, but the
nature of scientific inquiries vs. hard-to-solve business and market questions
is decidedly different. Technology providers must also deal with the very different
needs of enterprises, along with the shorter times to results that impatient stakeholders
expect.

Therefore, it comes
as no surprise that tools and methodologies for big data in business are far
from perfect, so they should be used judiciously.

2: It’s easy to lose the forest in the
trees.

There’s a lot
that has already been said about the difficulties enterprises experience when
it comes to knowing how to query big data for the insights they seek. Another equally
challenging feat is uncovering the right combinations of data that are capable
of producing these answers. There is not an exact art or science that can do
this, either.

3: Important data is not necessarily big
data.

WSJ’s sales lead
example is well taken. There is so much anxiety within companies to take advantage
of big data that they risk finding themselves prematurely abandoning tried and
true practices that have yielded results for new practices captured in
dashboards and drilldowns that don’t perform nearly as well.

Big data can
produce monumental insights, but it’s not the answer for every business situation.

4: Companies should proceed thoughtfully
in their big data efforts.

Big data and the
ability to exploit it will pay big for enterprises that spend the time to determine:
where and how it works best; who within their organizations should be working
with and using it; and which technologies can get them to their goals. These enterprises will also have an understanding of the areas in which big data should
play minor roles — if it plays at all.