It’s no secret that big data offers enormous potential for businesses. Every C-suite on the planet understands the promise. Less understood—and much less put into practice—are the steps that companies must take in order to realize that potential. For all their justifiable enthusiasm about big data, too many businesses risk leaving its vast potential on the table—or, worse, ceding it to competitors.
Big data has brought game-changing shifts to the way data is acquired, analyzed, stored, and used. Solutions can be more flexible, more scalable, and more cost-effective than ever before. Instead of building one-off systems designed to address specific problems for specific business units, companies can create a common platform leveraged in different ways by different parts of the business. And all kinds of data—structured and unstructured, internal and external—can be incorporated.
Yet big data also requires a great deal of change. Businesses will have to rethink how they access and safeguard information, how they interact with consumers holding vital data, how they leverage new skills and technologies. They’ll have to embrace new partnerships, new organization structures, and even new mind-sets. For many companies, the challenge of big data will seem as outsized as the payoff. But it doesn’t have to be.
In engagements with clients of The Boston Consulting Group, we’ve found it helpful to break down big data into three core components: data usage, the data engine, and the data ecosystem. For each of these areas, two key capabilities have proved essential. (See Exhibit 1.) By developing the resulting six capabilities, today’s businesses can put in place a solid framework for enabling—and succeeding with—big data:
- Data Usage: Identifying Opportunities and Building Trust. Companies must create a culture that encourages experimentation and supports a data-driven ideation process. They need to focus on trust, too—not just building it with consumers but wielding it as a competitive weapon. Businesses that use data in transparent and responsible ways will ultimately have more access to more information than businesses that don’t.
- The Data Engine: Laying the Technical Foundation and Shaping the Organization. Technical platforms that are fast, scalable, and flexible enough to handle different types of applications are critical. So, too, are the skill sets required to build and manage them. In general, these new platforms will prove remarkably cost-effective, using commodity hardware and leveraging cloud-based and open-source technologies. But their all-purpose nature means that they will often be located outside individual business units. It’s crucial, therefore, to link them back to those businesses and their goals, priorities, and expertise. Companies will also need to put the insights they gain from big data to use—embedding them in operational processes, in or near real time.
- The Data Ecosystem: Participating in a Big-Data Ecosystem and Making Relationships Work. Big data is creating opportunities that are often outside a company’s traditional business or markets. Partnerships will be increasingly necessary to obtain required data, expertise, capabilities, or customers. Businesses must be able to identify the right relationships—and successfully maintain them.
In a world where information moves fast, businesses that are quick to see, and pursue, the new ways to work with data are the ones that will get ahead and stay ahead. The following six capabilities will help get them there.