the ceo magazine, big data,
Ruth Veloria, Executive Dean, The University of Phoenix School of Business

Essential Question: How can the CEO or business leader use data analytics to the benefit of his or her organization? How can data help inform decisions, drive customer engagement and streamline business operations beyond what we’re seeing now?

In 1946, an era of incredible technological advance and change, it was American novelist Gertrude Stein who recognized and lamented, “everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Long before the “Information Age” in which we now live, we have asked for proof of statements, and evidence to reinforce our decisions. Never before, however, have leaders across industries been faced with and required to act upon the sheer volume of information that we have access to today. 

Our challenge is not the acquisition of data, but identifying strategies to use it in meaningful applications. With so much information at our fingertips, executives must have the ability to extract what is important and what can be ignored – that is our charge as business leaders in today’s data-driven environment.

Leaders know that Big Data and analytics, employed and deployed properly, have the power to greatly benefit organizations across industries and at all levels of management. CEOs know that only the right information in the right contexts is of any use to them. Manipulating data is becoming a must-have skill set, and it is transcending industries and job titles. A current skills gap in business employees is the inability to understand what the data is articulating. What corporate executives are telling us is that business schools must teach the skills of handling, manipulating and storytelling with data in order to help close this widening gap.

Data alone should not define objectives that did not exist before – it should instead enhance existing best practices. An organization without clearly defined objectives is at risk of being unprepared to become a data driven company. In fact, without the necessary culture and vision, introducing large data sets can often lead to organizational silos and turmoil. Just as data can intensify existing clarity and coordination, so too can it enhance preexisting confusion. Use data to improve existing good practices to show that they are indeed practical.

Data can ultimately help you understand the potential outcomes of the course you have set, but along the way there can be a lot of useless analytics that could lead you to alter your course – you have to make sure as a leader that you’re responding to the right information at the right time and for the right reasons.

Here are some of the most actionable ways for CEO and other individuals in leadership positions can identify and leverage Big Data:

Avoiding Knee-Jerk Reactions

A calm and collected understanding of trends over time helps to contextualize the present moment and allows cooler heads to prevail – While a drastic decision is sometimes necessary, its important to start small to ensure the organization has a common goal, a common objective and the common terminology needed to have an impact.

According to a recent survey commissioned by Dell, 89 percent of mid-market businesses with some form of Big Data initiative in progress reported notable improvements in company decision-making. Furthermore, 96 percent of the 300 companies surveyed were either already using or had plans in place to start using a Big Data project in the near future, 57 percent of those planning to deploy a strategy cited desire to improve efficiency.

However, to understand historical trends we must have historical data. Market analysts, if provided with the same window of data, would report not enough information to draw informed conclusions. Businesses too, should be wary about impulsive decision-making or altering course too quickly. I recently spoke with Lori Sherer, Bain Capital’s Global Practice expert for advanced analytics. She reported, “predictive modeling is helpful, but historical data is limited. The data you’re seeing is from yesterday.”  She says the overall question leaders should be focusing on is “how can data analytics improve the efficiency or the quality of the decisions?” 

Staying Close to the Voice of the Customer

So, to what end should businesses be ever-improving the efficiency and quality of their decisions?

It may seem second nature to some business executives, but it is critical to remember that the product and service you provide is nothing without the customer. More than ever before and across all industries, the highly competitive marketplace is battling for the customers’ attention at any given time. Data can help you first better understand, and then better access and capture the attention of that customer.

I also spoke with Zulfikar Sidi, Sabre vice president of enterprise and data analytics at the recent Dallas Hackathon, a collaborative event by University of Phoenix School of Business and College of Information Systems and Technology. Sidi reminded me that the key is to continue “to build relationships with our customers.” Sidi maintained, “we need to consistently ask two things…what kind of data or insights allowed us to arrive at this conclusion…[and] what kinds of insights will allow our customers to be better and more informed?” Sidi recognizes that the point of striving for a better functioning business should be to provide a better service to the customer.

Streamlining Business Operations

Data has the power to show what is working, what should change and why.

Sidi also told me that “from the bottom, I take a look at my team, and ask, do we have the right people, and how are we measuring success? When people begin to see how we’re using the data, it motivates everyone to begin asking questions, and it creates momentum.” 

Put another way, data helps build self-accountability and belief within a business, as long as management’s objectives and expectations are clearly outlined. Here too, data has the potential to enhance existing practices to make them best practices.

Final Thoughts

By combining what data offers – tailored insights – with the human ability to create a narrative – an inspiring story – today’s business leaders can begin to cultivate a culture built upon a much more significant foundation of living knowledge, rather than simply static information. Being able to support your business narrative with data is a must-have skillset.

It’s true; we have too much information on a daily basis. However, we now have the ability to collect and capture the information needed to construct a much more robust business operation and worldview than ever before. Just remember that your business decisions should be enhanced and informed by data, not replaced by it.



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