How CIOs can steer the big data discussion

Sharing the excitement of big data, while steering the conversation toward corporate data, lets the CIO temper some of the enthusiasm with realism.

With big data quickly becoming a household term, as CIO you're soon going to be asked if this is a relevant technology for your organization (assuming you haven't already been asked). This can be a challenging question to answer. Glibly dismiss big data as too expensive or irrelevant to your organization, and you risk appearing out of touch. Jumping into a deep technical discussion of the nuances and challenges of working with big data, and you risk being regarded as the "plumber," called in after the decisions have been made to "just make it work." Here are some recommendations on how to steer discussions about big data, whether your organization is large or small.

First, define "big data"

Half the challenge of discussing big data is that there is no single product or tool that represents it. Unlike an iPhone or ERP package, big data is more a concept than a product or clearly defined set of criteria. When speaking with a peer outside IT, try to determine precisely what they're referring to when they broach the subject of big data. Are they referring simply to rapidly analyzing large volumes of existing corporate data, or trying to process massive sets of unstructured data? Do they want to incorporate external or environmental data into existing reporting to provide more insight, or do they want to throw massive data sets at PhD-level data scientists to see what comes out?

More often than not, when people start referring to "big data" they're more interested in incorporating existing enterprise data and rapidly performing ad-hoc queries across applications than wrangling massive sets of unstructured data and performing exceptional complex analyses. Taking the time to define "big data," and realizing that Marketing may have a very different definition than Accounting will ease the discussion.

Forget the "big" and focus on the data

In many organizations, data are siloed in various departments and applications. Even a single business unit might not be able to produce a seemingly straightforward report, since the data required are not linked or consolidated. Much of the attraction of big data to those outside IT is the assumption that this new technology performs some kind of technical magic, allowing any and all data sources within a company's four walls to be quickly linked and analyzed.

These scattered data sources often indicate a company is not yet "data mature" enough for true big data and could likely benefit from some more basic initiatives like building an enterprise data warehouse, building a basic Business Intelligence capability, or deploying a user-friendly reporting and analysis tool.

Is "big data" code for "better reporting"?

For many, one of the major promises of big data is improved reporting. Big data demonstrations are rife with fancy online reporting and easily digested dashboards. In some cases, requests for big data may really be veiled requests for better reporting capabilities. Even organizations with extensive data warehousing and BI capabilities sometimes skimp on reporting tools, either assuming dashboards and reporting will be done "later" or providing tools but skipping educating people on how to actually use them. If much of the infatuation with big data seems to be around the reporting, it might be time to dust off that old spreadsheet with reports that were tagged for a "future phase," or launching a few mini-initiatives and quality training to improve reporting capabilities.

Bottom line

The good news about all of the hubbub around big data is that it creates an opportunity to talk about, and get funding for, data-related initiatives. Sharing the excitement around big data while steering the conversation toward corporate data in general lets the CIO temper some of the enthusiasm with realism, and often retarget a big data initiative toward something more realistic and beneficial in the near term. Even if you're not technically correct in referring to a basic data cleansing and consolidation exercise as "big data," the growing interest around the subject just might let you build some increased capabilities that accelerate your "data maturity" far more than an ill-conceived and unwarranted initiative.