The amount of data we produce is expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes (or 44 zettabytes) by 2020, according to EMC’s Digital Universe study. It’s an intimidating figure and has led to what is known as ‘big data’.
Broadly, big data combines multiple information sources including social media, customer relationship systems, e-commerce and web interactions to develop insights. The sheer size of the data sets involved can lead to a perception that big data analysis and its commercial benefits are exclusive to large organisations such as banks, insurers and search giants such as Google.
Not so, says Mark van Rijmenam, a big data strategist and founder of big data indexing firm Datafloq.
“Large organisations might get more data, but it doesn’t mean they get better insights. There isn’t much of a difference between small and large companies there, and there are so many big data-as-a-service tools available,” van Rijmenam explains.
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What he means is that you don’t necessarily need a large capital outlay; you can source big data analytics via cloud services. A worldwide survey by analysts Gartner published in September found 69 per cent of midsized business have invested or are planning to invest in big data analytics within the next two years.
In the case of smaller businesses, says van Rijmenam, most are trying to use big data to get a better view of customers. However, he believes that big data can help smaller businesses improve their performance in myriad ways across industry sectors.
Raj Dalal, founder of big data and analytics consultancy BigInsights, agrees the key strength of big data analysis is gaining business visibility, particularly around customers. However, he says the benefits can take many forms.
Using the example of a car dealership, Dalal says big data has the potential to provide information on what a consumer is seeking before they even enter a showroom ‑ and the means to direct them towards one dealership in particular. That directly translates to revenue improvement.
“You want to know the whole sales pipeline, and if you can convince a small percentage of people who visit your website to walk in to your showroom, then the greater the chance of you selling them something,” he says.
From there, companies can use big data to keep those new customers loyal. A growing trade franchise might use it to test the return on their marketing investment; to find out what strategies are actually getting new customers on the books.
However, these are simpler examples. A small-but-growing winery or brewery might use big data to understand its sales volumes, eliminating waste and expense at the manufacturing stage, says Dalal. And it is in these latter sectors that businesses need to be playing the long game. Sensors that can monitor anything from soil quality to machine performance are rapidly becoming more accessible to businesses and are expected to play a big role in business analytics.
“Sensors are being deployed in all aspects of business because their cost is dropping dramatically and leading companies are using that data to optimise business for whatever they’re deployed,” he says.
However, big data’s benefits aren’t limited to the commercial space. Maddie Riewoldt's Vision (MRV), winner of the 2016 Telstra Australian charity award, is a philanthropically supported organisation focused on bone marrow failure syndrome. MRV has taken its first steps in creating a multi-state information hub to compare diagnostic and treatment options for the disease across Australia.
MRV chief executive Nicky Long says that once the analytical tools are in place the database may vastly improve understanding of the disease. “It’s a rare disease so people really have to get together to move mountains.
”Entering into big data analytics doesn’t require moving mountains, but Dalal says smaller businesses “may need a little IT help”. The first step for any business, he says, is to ensure its customer-relations systems and web technology is modern enough to keep pace with big data analytics systems. Many are just too old to capture the data required and it can’t easily be moved into a cloud-based analytics environment. “There’s a lot of stuff you just can’t get data in and out of,” says Dalal.
For some businesses, such an overhaul may seem overwhelming. However, van Rijmenam has some toe-in-the-water wisdom to share. “Start with small proof-of-concept projects at low cost and then experiment and expand from there.”