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'Big data' analytics spawns a revolution

'Big data' analytics could fundamentally change how businesses operate, according to a keynote speaker at the SAS Analytics conference.

LAS VEGAS -- "Big data" debates these days are all about labels: Is big data fact or fiction? Marketing ploy or legitimate? Hype or reality?

In truth, big data exists at both ends of the spectrum, according to William Hakes, keynote speaker at the SAS Institute Inc.'s Analytics 2012 Conference Series. As is so often the case, where the term lies on that spectrum boils down to perspective.

"It can be hype if you focus on the wrong thing," said Hakes, co-founder and CEO of Link Analytics, a services and solutions provider based in Atlanta. "But if you focus on what you can do with this information -- with all that's out there -- it can change the landscape for businesses."

In other words: labels, shmabels. Ready or not, big data -- the stuff businesses have never dealt with nor readily know how to deal with -- has arrived. But, Hakes warns, deriving insight from big data will require more than a shift in perspective. This is a revolution, he said, comparing it to IT's entrance way back when, and that means businesses will need to reconsider how they are organized and how they operate.

"Think about … what IT did inside of companies. It not only launched a bunch of firms, but it forever changed the organization," Hakes said. "When this happened, this was not a core competency of most companies; this was not what that company was in business to do. But they had to do it anyway because it became critical for doing business as usual and doing [it] better than the competition."

All aboard the big data analytics train

It's an oversimplification to say that the data world has become increasingly complex. With mobile applications, smart appliances and loyalty programs, the Everyman is now a data agent. He not only consumes the stuff but generates it as well, handing over personal information about his location, food habits or musical preferences. Of course, he does this at a price. "[A]ll of the information we create as agents -- it changes our expectations and what we expect to come from the companies we interact with," Hakes said. "It's a kind of social bargain."

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In turn, businesses are tasked with figuring out and delivering what their customers want, but they won't be able to do so by collecting and storing the data alone. They'll also need to extract insights out of the data, Hakes said, and that will require the disruptive tendency of analytics.

"Big data analytics and analytics in general … change the problem fundamentally," Hakes said. "Think about market research asking, 'What do you think about this?' That type of information is being replaced by big data. Why ask about behavior when you can observe it?" Big data, in other words, enables businesses to ask different questions, find different answers and because of that, even develop different products, he said.

The rise of the chief analytics officer

But building an infrastructure to uncover valuable insights in big data is only part of the equation. Businesses also need to elevate the status of analytics within the organization so that it equates to its potential. That, Hakes said, is easier said than done. The move can instigate struggles between departments that see significance in owning analytics -- struggles he calls inefficient.

"So, the chief analytics officer in the organization must rise," said Hakes, who's an advocate for introducing an analytics executive to the C-level lineup, "If you don't elevate this thing to the C level -- and, I would argue, [to] the CEO level -- the promises often will fall short."

A chief analytics officer (CAO) could create and articulate an analytics vision from top to bottom, act as a steward so that analytics becomes an integral part of the organization, and find and foster talent.

In fact, according to Link Analytics research, one of the other byproducts of big data analytics is the revelation of a talent gap. While the question of how to fill that gap is being mulled over by institutions of higher education, universities may also lack the more up-to-date tools, data sets and training, Hakes said, not just in the computational-type skills but in the softer skills as well.

"Businesses are saying, 'Give me somebody who can walk, talk and chew gum at the same time,'" Hakes said. "Give me somebody who is not just a translation engine."

A CAO could help build that partnership between business and academia, which Hakes said is vital for innovation. But, he said, brace for the blowback. While implementing a CAO position might solve departmental struggles, it also could introduce territorial battles between the executives themselves.

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