By Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa
The recent announcement that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram would be merging their messaging platforms sent data experts into a frenzy, as these big data aggregators take another step closer to becoming giant data aggregators. But are we missing the point? Data itself is not inherently valuable and its future only depends on what we do with it. If, as seems likely, we are we too focused on the mechanics of big data in the modern age (‘collect as much as you can and think of a strategy later’) perhaps we need to look at how we can use data more wisely.
Contrary to popular belief, analysis of data, or mining insights, is only half the story. Insights alone don’t make businesses better. An insight can’t improve your workflows, bolster productivity or free up admin time. Rather than simply analysing the data you have, the important thing is to know what you want to achieve first, so that you can activate insights as soon as they arise.
For example, shipping and logistics company UPS installed advanced telematics on their fleet of delivery vans and tracked metrics like distance travelled, engine idle time and fuel usage. They were looking at how to reduce carbon emissions and increase efficiency in the company’s delivery fleet and began collecting data on their vehicles to work towards a solution. Through better route planning and decreasing the amount of time vans were idling, the project has led to a reduction of 100,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year. It has also reduced the number of driven miles by 100 million, which has a knock-on effect in reducing wear and tear on their fleet.
Unfortunately, examples like these are not as common as they should be given the technology we have access to. A lack of action-oriented focus is already proving a significant business challenge for many organisations and IT leaders. According to Harvard Business Review for example, nearly 70% of companies have made establishing a data-driven culture a priority but only 40% are hitting that goal. Findings like these demonstrate just how difficult it is to become data-first, without the correct philosophy attached to it.
British Airways offers an example of how action led data analysis can bring about a real change in how a business operates. The company identified through research that its customers were self-identified ‘busy people’ who get irritated by being presented with irrelevant offers. In a bid to create ‘Know Me’ - a personalised and deliberate loyalty programme which offered much more targeted offers on flights and holidays – it made use of loyalty and online behaviour data and successfully launched the programme a year later. The scheme has been so successful that customers have written to the airline to let them know how pleased they are that British Airways understands their air travel needs so well. 
Growing your data sets without increasing your data
The good news is that taking this approach to big data doesn’t have to be the sole domain of large corporations. Many platforms exist which can plug into existing data collection tools to allow businesses to action their insights. ClearStory Data, for example, lets businesses compare internal data to publicly available information, allowing them to identify any weak spots and work on them to turn them into strengths. This action-first approach means that small data sets aren’t a hindrance, as organisations can use external tools to tap into external insights. By teasing out the relevant pieces of data from a multitude of sources, small businesses ensure that any actions they take are supported with context from a wider business landscape.
Google Trends, for example, lets you analyse internet search activity and Microsoft Azure has open data on everything from agriculture to taxi trip records. The effects of this could be far-reaching. Using external data in an actionable way could enable growing enterprises to make predictions on market or customer behaviour, and respond accordingly, ahead of time. An example would be a restaurant using seasonal data trends to predict what their customers will want to eat more of during certain times of the month and increasing their promotions of those foods at those times. This action-led approach to the information collected ensures that the insight around what consumers like to eat and when is activated effectively.
This is the next step in the big data revolution for businesses: using internal and external data in an action-first approach, to allow them to grow their data sets, decipher what they want to achieve and how they’re going to achieve it. By operationalising data insight in this way, even the smallest business can benefit from the big data boom.
While an insights-first approach to data can be interesting, it is almost certainly not the way to generate operational and transformative value for your business. Change is driven by action. For businesses grappling with their data sets and what to do with them, the best approach would be to consider what they want to achieve first. The future of data analytics isn’t about what you’ve got, it’s about how you use it.