Gonna Manage Big Data Like It's 1999

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I started working at Forrester Research in 1997. In retrospect, I think I got hired not because I demonstrated great potential to be an analyst, but because my boss and colleague needed a sucker to join the team and write a report that nobody else wanted to write.

So I joined Forrester and wrote my first report on the hot topic of the day: Knowledge Management (it was a terrible, terrible report).

I interviewed executives from about 50 companies about what they were doing about knowledge management. What I heard was confusing. For the most part, what these companies were doing with IT and data was pretty much what they had been doing for the prior 10 years.

What was different (in 1997), was that now these initiatives were called “knowledge management initiatives.”

There were two key success factors (or barriers) critical to the success of knowledge management initiatives: 1) employees with the right skills in knowledge management, and 2) management support and commitment.

After all, sucking the “knowledge” out of people’s heads and making it available to everyone else in the organization wasn’t easy, and wouldn’t be successful if management didn’t sufficiently invest in it.

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Roll the clock ahead 16 years and you’ll find that nothing has changed. Except the labels.

In a creditunions.com article titled Big Data At A Growing Credit Union, an interview with a credit union executive went like this:

Q: Can you define Big Data?

A: Not really. But in a way, Big Data is what people have been doing all along — looking at and analyzing data. I don’t know the tipping point where a credit union moves from generally looking at data and is suddenly in Big Data.

Q; Can’t data also overwhelm and slow decisions?

A: It can unless you achieve the balance of talent and training. If you put the right data in the wrong hands you can be swimming in that data forever. You’ve got to get people to the point where they understand what’s relevant and what’s not, and that takes time.

Q: What do you feel is critical to success with Big Data?

A: You have to have directors and senior managers who are supportive and understand there are revelations this data can provide.

You’ll pardon me if I can’t help but think that this all sounds vaguely familiar.

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If you can’t define Big Data — other than saying it’s what “people have been doing all along” — you are not going to get management support for the efforts.

If you think Big Data represents a different way of managing your business, but you can’t articulate that difference to your employees, you will not get broad employee support for the efforts.

Management is usually willing to fund some initiatives to try something promising. Employees, on the other hand, are generally loathe to change unless the pain of the existing is too much to bear. You might argue that they’re willing to change if the potential upside is appealing enough, but I’m not so sure about that.

Jumping on the management fad bandwagon is a prescription for failure. It trains employees to put everything they want to get funding for under the fad banner, and diminishes whatever potential value really lies in the core of the new concept.

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My take: You won’t find anyone more supportive of using data to make business decisions than me. But the path to becoming more data-driven doesn’t mean managing like it’s 1999 and jumping on the fad bandwagon. 

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