TECHNOLOGY

Don't Know What 'Big Data' Is? You're Not Alone

A new survey shows small companies are eager to get big data--even though they're not sure what it is.
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If you think you know what "big data" is, do you believe your business peers would agree with your definition? Chances are, they wouldn't.

Harris Interactive just released a survey asking 154 companies, more than half of them SMBs, how they define "big data." Answers are all over the map. For 28% it means "massive growth of transaction data." But 24% think it refers to new technologies for managing massive data, and 19% define it as the "requirement to store and archive data for regulatory compliance."

Whatever it is, they know they want it! About 76% describe big data as an "opportunity" for their companies.

It may be that big data, like Pinterest, is something that small business owners have seen mentioned so often in the technology and business press (including here) that they're sure they should be doing something with it, even if they don't know what that something is.

"Interest in big data goes almost through the roof for small companies because they're trying to grab that information and use it to create a competitive advantage," notes Steve Lucas, executive vice president at SAP, which sponsored the survey.

Don't get overwhelmed

Lucas himself defines big data as a convergence of data from many different sources that provides businesses with much more information than they've traditionally had. He likens dealing with big data to crossing the street in Mumbai, where the usual American methodology (wait for green light, look right, look left, and if nothing is coming, begin walking) could get you killed.

But therein lies a dilemma for small businesses which, the survey shows, fear getting buried in an avalanche of data more than their larger counterparts do. How do you avoid getting swept away?

1. Have a focus.

Many expert sources (Inc. included) advise measuring every possible parameter, from page load times to customer color preferences, to location and time of day of tweets about your product. That's a powerful approach, but if it's too much, start by figuring out which questions are most important, and focus on collecting as much data on those as you can. "If you don't have a strategy for finding the signal within the noise, you'll get lost, because there will be more and more noise," Lucas warns.

2. Use technology to manage the data.

Lucas advises using software tools to help manage and oversee data. Not surprising: SAP happens to sell such a tool, designed to track social media mentions in real time. Whether that makes sense for you or not, it may be a good idea to look for data analytics tools or experts that can help you turn the mass of data into business intelligence.

3. Don't worry if you don't know what big data is.

No one really does. Lucas reports that he's part of a commission tasked with helping the federal government make use of big data. The first item on the commission's agenda? "What is Big Data?"

"There is no big data moral authority in the market or anywhere in the world," he says. "Everyone has a different view of big data, and will continue to have."

In the end, it doesn't really matter, he adds. "It's not what big data is, it's what you do with it."

Last updated: Jun 26, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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