Is big data ever going to be for small companies?

Big data is playing a transformative role in the way companies are selling services, from manufacturers to app developers. We spoke to Andy Neely from the University of Cambridge, who’s recognised as one of the world’s leading authorities on organisational performance measurement and management, about the role SMEs have to play.

Could you outline the work you do, particularly in regards to big data?

I run the Cambridge Service Alliance. It’s a university and industry consortium looking at firms that are trying to make a shift to providing services and solutions rather than just products. 

Often this is enabled by remote monitoring and, particular with manufacturing, they are selling services rather than products. Firms are then thinking about how we remotely monitor these assets and optimise the service? 

For example, engine manufacturers like Caterpillar will sell the thrust rather than the engines. They have sensors on the equipment, but because they’re monitoring so many things they’re creating more and more data. We’re looking at all of that to let manufacturing become more efficient.  

How will this impact SMEs?

SMES are tied into these developments in a number of different ways. SMES are suppliers to some of these larger manufacturers and they will expect them to provide these kinds of components. Then there’s an opportunity if you can collect data in the field you can get some really interesting insights, like how to manage spare parts inventories.

What do small businesses interested big data’s role in their organisation need to think about?

Start by thinking about what your customer and your customer’s customer values; what role could data play in this? The next question is how I’m going to access that data and have the skills to do so. 

One of Caterpillar’s dealers, Finning, sells machines and monitors equipment. They gather data on individual machines. How do we help minimise the cost per tonne of quarrying? We can monitor the machines and the uptime. It’s not overheating you can tell the put manager to work that machine a bit harder.

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How can these organisations build up the capacity and expertise to handle these data sets? 

There’s an interesting question about whether they want to build their own capacity or partner with others. I might not have the resources, so I can effectively outsource that. That could be a local university. You can see networks come together and sharing this responsibility. In some cases that’s a better route. 

They challenges to doing it in-house are technical challenges around accessing data, getting the skills to do so. You can drown in data.

What are the most interesting examples of SMEs’ work with big data you’ve come across?

There are all sorts of examples from manufactures to looking at where social injustice is likely to occur. FlightCaster predicts whether flights will be delayed. They compare historical data on weather patterns industrial action etc. to current conditions and work out whether the flight will be delayed before the airline would tell you. Sumall use social media data to do investigatory work. 

How can SMEs take advantage of data released by organisations like Google or the NHS?

That trend will increase. With big data there’s a big move toward making it available. The value is in combining data sets, for example, GPS data to shopping habits. There’s always a question of the concerns around privacy and security; just because I can combine these data sets doesn’t mean I should.

What do you think’s the future for data releases of this kind?

The volume is just going to grow and grow. They talk about the three trends of big data, so velocity, volume and variety. Velocity and volume will grow more and more as devices are connected. All the things that are connected will generate data. The volume is like an avalanche. We’re going to see an explosion in the amount of data that’s available. Then there’s a questions about variety and whether we’ll see a growth in variety is less clear. 

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The point I make to SMEs is you have to think about where the value lies. Think strategically about the value in the data around your product or service. 

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