Big data is everywhere. It's one of the hottest topics in business, healthcare, government, you name it. Lots of companies have it, and those who don't have it, want it. But what would big data mean for your company? Do you really need it? Do you really want it? Are you ready for the changes it could bring? Even if you're ready and willing, can you afford it? Done properly, big data can profoundly change your company's business. Done half-heartedly or improperly, it can bring more harm than good.

YPO member Asha Saxena is a big data mythbuster. No one believes in the power of big data more than she does, but she also knows it takes the right circumstances for data to have a lasting positive impact. For 20 years, Saxena was the CEO, and today remains Chairman of the Board, of Future Technologies, Inc., a consulting firm focused on the analysis and management of big data for private companies and the government. Saxena is also the Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Aculyst, an analytics firm that helps healthcare providers improve clinical, financial, and operational outcomes. She served as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Columbia University, and is now an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School and the Mailman School of Public Health.

Saxena shared the biggest myths about the big data industry, and what the truth means for your company:

1. Big Data is always the way to go!

Everyone's doing it, so I have to, too! Right? Wrong, according to Saxena. "It's super sexy. But it's not for everyone!" Saxena warns. With all the buzz surrounding the topic, anyone may feel tempted by the idea, but do you really need it? "Everybody thinks you should just do it. 'Oh, our company should do big data because that's how we're going to be ahead of the curve.' And that may be a good strategy, but are you ready for it? Are you data savvy yet? Do you know what a data maturity model is?" Saxena questions. Data can be an incredibly powerful driver of success. But before you jump into the deep end of the data pool, make sure you understand what you're getting into, and how it could impact your company. And make sure you're prepared to follow through on what the data demands.

2. Big Data is about collecting all the data.

In big data as in many other facets of life, people confuse quantity with quality. "People think you need to collect a lot of data. But it's not about the volume!" Saxena emphasizes. There's so much data available today that it's more about harnessing it than collecting every bit of it. "In the past, all the technology was built for highly structured, organized data. It had to be in neat rows and columns. But today, so much of the data is unstructured. Now we have pictures, movies, social media...that's all data! You need to know what you're looking for," she explains. It's easy to get lost in the sheer amount of information, and then you're no closer to achieving your company's goals than when you started.

3. Big Data can help you find all your answers.

Big Data can provide a lot of answers - but it won't answer anything if you don't first ask the right questions. "People get confused about it. They aren't sure what to do with it," Saxena smiles. "People think, 'If we collect all the data, we can find all the answers.' But if you ask the wrong question and collect the wrong data, you'll never find the right answers," she advises. "Just having data has no meaning unless you get value out of it. So what kind of value are you getting from your data?" she asks. Big Data may sound sexy, but it becomes very unappealing when you don't know what to do with it.

4. Big Data can be implemented by hiring PhDs.

Just because you have a big brain doesn't mean you understand Big Data. "It's not about hiring the smartest people to implement Big Data," Saxena asserts, "It's about having the right people." Who are these people? "They understand what your needs are, and then they can implement the Big Data architecture to achieve it," she says. But even the right people need the right set of circumstances to thrive. Saxena advises, "You need to have the right infrastructure in place in your company. You need to understand not just what the next step is, but what the right path is to get to that next step. It's a whole mindset of people and culture," she explains. Everyone needs to be on the same page about the vision for the company and the role that data will play in achieving it.

5. Big Data means big money.

Once upon a time, this may have been true, but not anymore. "In legacy systems, you had to collect the data, and then run the report, and then analyze it all at the end. It all took time and there was a lot of latency," she recalls. Today, time and money function very differently with data: it comes much faster, for a lot less money. Saxena enthuses, "People think Big Data is big investment, but it doesn't have to be expensive!" She suggests, "Explore Amazon or Google cloud services. You can use them for individual projects at very reasonable prices. Start small, and build on that success." Here again, however, you need to have the right environment set up and the right people to implement what you learn. "As long as those elements are in place, you can make the project successful!" Saxena says. Learn to crawl before you walk, and nurture the right atmosphere for data to drive success in your company.

Each week Kevin explores exclusive stories inside YPO, the world's premiere peer-to-peer organization for chief executives, eligible at age 45 or younger.

Published on: Jan 25, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.