Its not big, Its not clever

I can still hear the words from my schooldays as if it was only yesterday……. “Stop that right now Cohen!!!  It’s not big and it’s not clever!!! “

I can’t really remember what the “it” was, but the sentiment applies absolutely to all the hype around the so called “Big Data” debate….. and what a shame that something which is actually so important has become so embroiled in marketing hype (much the same as where the cloud computing debate was back in 09/10).  I’ve actually grown to hate the term “Big Data” now. For me, there is no “Big Data”, there’s just “data” – always was and always will be.

Now many of you will know that I’m a simple man and I try and think in simple terms and for me there is really only three categories when it comes to data:

  1. The stuff you have and you know where it is, but if only you knew a little more about it.
  2. The stuff you think you have, or believe you should have, but you’re not quite sure where it is.
  3. The stuff you know you don’t have, and may have not even thought about until now, but its stuff that might just be useful, if you only knew what it “did” and where to look.

The first two really should be easy with today’s search, retrieval and data management tools right ?? ….. and even without all that sophistication, if you just organize your own data more effectively, you’ll find more stuff. I mean; when all I owned was a filing cabinet, and the document I wanted was buried among a sea of unfilled papers, just thrown into the cabinet, did I have a big data problem?  I certainly had a big finding problem – but it was one that was quickly sorted by indexing and structure.  And as storage requirements have grown, so have the ‘retrieval’ technologies with increasingly sophisticated structured and unstructured search techniques.

But, its the last category which seems to be where the majority of the big data chatter” lives. This idea that if you analyze huge amounts of data you might just find out things that you wouldn’t have otherwise known. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, because it clearly does. And certainly, there are a growing number of data sources where information about your brand, products or services could reside. However, I would argue that this is just an extension of looking for the things you already know about – or more importantly you should know about. Indeed, it would be good if some organisations just got to grips with the data they already have and know they already have. Surely it makes more sense to leverage and monetize the information you already have before  before moving on.

The thing is, there aren’t that many businesses that need the level of serendipity often used to hype up “big data”. The arguments people often resort to come from social media – that If you mine Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums etc, and pull all that conversational information together with buying patterns, you’ll get a better view of “the customer”. Maybe you will.  But then what ?? The real skill is working out what to do at that point. That’s a people skill – do you have the right people ?? That’s a business skill – are you equipped to respond (if responding is even the right thing to do) ?? “Big data” systems aren’t going to help you with that. Loads of companies have leapt into social media conversations about their brand only to make the situation worse. And frankly, is this serendipitous searching even necessary? One of the big parts of social media is “conversation” and consumers are more open than ever about their views on your brand, products, goods or services. Why not just ask ??

Perhaps we should focus more on a “bigger understanding” of the stuff we already have, do a bit more “big listening” and have some well considered “big conversations”.

Because as my teacher would have probably said; when it comes to data – its not big and its not clever – it’s just data.

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