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The big question about big data

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Big data was the buzzword of 2012. The year was awash with information, comments and discussion about the topic and as we enter 2013, it’s time for the talking to make way for action. Despite the hype and column inches, businesses don’t know what first steps to take so they can manage and use big data efficiently and gain an information advantage.

The explosion of big data over the past 12 months caught many by surprise. Front line managers are not sure where to start when it comes to managing the volume. With 12 terabytes worth of tweets created everyday, Gartner predicted that the volume of data worldwide will grow annually by 59 per cent. It is easy to see why businesses are concerned how to manage both the volume and variety of information that falls under the banner of big data.

Half of IT managers in the UK, in fact, have no idea how to make the most of big data, while 21 per cent won’t even try, according to new research by Iron Mountain 

With this attitude, many businesses will miss out on the raft of opportunities that big data presents and may leave them lagging behind the competition. Instead of striking fear into a business, it should be seen as an opportunity to unlock insight and the chance to reap financial returns considered beyond reach.

Back to basics

Although big data is a relatively new phenomenon, the principles that underline its management have been tried and tested for years. Businesses should not lose sight of these principles amidst all the hype: Big data should not result in a big headache. Businesses need to start looking at principle ways of managing the increasing volume within their available resources and budgets.

The key to getting it right is to adopt a robust, yet flexible information management framework that can adapt and grow with the business’ understanding of big data. This will provide a structure that the company can build upon as the full impact of big data becomes clear.

Steps to success

By considering the following checklist, you’ll be able to manage whatever comes your way and can start managing big data as a benefit rather than simply seeing it as a burden.

1. Define your business goals and objectives

Then build your big data strategy around them.

2. Shrink the problem: make the challenge manageable

Everything is changing too rapidly to find the perfect solution for every problem. Decide which information is of greatest potential or risk to your business and focus your time and resources on harnessing that.

3. Prioritise and get to grips with incoming data

Understand what you need to keep and consider deleting the rest. Big data can be messy, so don’t waste too much time cleaning everything.

4. Have a plan for what’s left; segment data by date 

For example, anything older than a particular date can be archived on back-up tapes in a secure archive. Dispensing junk mail could already free up between 30 to 40 per cent of space on your servers.

5. Establish company-wide, scalable, big-data-resilient information management systems

This will help you channel, analyse or archive unstructured digital content such as emails and social media.

6. Know your legal obligations 

In technology, law always lags behind practice. In the big data world, it is particularly important to understand how emerging data protection and privacy laws affect social media, real-time consumer data and location-based information.

7. Avoid analysis paralysis

Big data informs and enhances judgement and intuition, it should not replace them. Big data volumes have immense potential for improved decision-making, but can cause delays as managers sift through thousands, if not millions, of data points in order to make a decision.

8. Opt for progress over perfection

Design your data management policies in good faith and implement them consistently across the business. What you decide will touch everyone in the business so it is vital to get all employees onboard.

9. Make it easy for all departments to see your information

People need access to the data, but they want it to be painless, transparent and easy. Ensure employees know how to search for and analyse the data so they can release its value. Integrate paper into the process by digitising it.

10. View the data in context

Data in isolation is essentially worthless. Don’t get so lost looking for patterns and trends that you lose sight of the big picture.

11. Consider your carbon footprint

Archived back-up tapes consume a fraction of the power of other leading data storage options, including spinning computer disks and cloud storage (storage on a permanently switched-on, artificially-cooled server in a data center off-site.)

12.  Always know where the data is and who is accountable for it  

We have only just started to scratch the surface of what big data can do for businesses. 

In today’s fast moving and competitive business environment, big data offers mid-sized firms across all sectors an opportunity to:

  • Find new insights;
  • Improve customer relations and supply chain management;
  • Make the business more agile and responsive; and
  • Answer questions that could previously have been beyond its reach. 

If the right underlying framework is put in place, the financial returns could be phenomenal.

Patrick Keddy is the Senior Vice President for Western Europe of Iron Mountain.

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