Big Data: Few Cash Cows and Many White Elephants

Unless you have been living in a dark cave or deep inside a rain forest, the term Big Data should be familiar. Some business executives even use it as a prestigious status “we deal with Big Data” as if it is an indicator to the size and wealth of their business. Consultants, on the other hand, like to promote data collection and analytics: data is the solution! Is it? Data is also the problem.BigData

What is Big Data? It is just a buzzword for the good old data that has outgrown the processing, storage, acquisition and transportation capacity of existing systems. A business that used to deal with few thousand rows in Excel may see Big Data in data sets exceeding few hundred millions of records. Databases that are several terabytes in size are Big Data to most enterprises today but may not be so in the next few years.

Big Data comprises both structured and unstructured, or loosely structured, data and may reside in files as text format. The volume, speed of generation and variety of Big Data pause great challenges to business enterprises but hide promising potentials at the same time.

Influenced by business trends and fierce marketing, fueled by competition and assisted by the relatively low cost of data acquisition and storage, businesses tend to collect all sorts of data thinking that super powerful business intelligence and analytics tools will be able to extract gold from these piles of data ores. Unfortunately, most businesses find very low ROI in such endeavors and many get trapped deep inside their data mines and spend even more on rescue operations.

Unless one is very naive to get sold on intelligent systems that can extract knowledge and derive business insights from piles of raw data, the journey from data acquisition to actionable knowledge is paved with hard work, hard earned money, well defined processes, true leadership, system design and implementation. There is no one size fits all recipe for data collection, processing and analytics. Failing to realize this, for lack of knowledge or lack of other options, is one of the root causes of Big Data projects going south.

Collecting more (or less) data than your business need may turn your Big Data project into a total loss – either due to additional transportation, processing and storage power required or lack of context data to use in analytics and mining models. For example, a large store selling food items may never need to know the color of customers’ cars (unless contracted by an automobile industry) and a car dealership need not collect data on customers’ eating habits. Collecting more data increases maintenance and processing overhead, so more is not always better.

To be able to calculate the ROI for a Big Data project, you need to establish goals and metrics first. Measurements and indicators are equally important. Data is not an end itself; it’s a means for deriving business insights, improving processes, achieving better customer service, increasing efficiency and improving your competitive edge. You have to strike a balance in data collection and retention – data management and maintenance is inevitable and it does carry a considerable price label. There are also rules and regulations to be observed and these may change across geographical regions, including user privacy. A good ROI is not necessarily financial; flight data and health data may improve safety and well being which are equally valuable.

If a data model is invalid or data is inaccurate or incomplete, analytics tools will not be able to turn mess into good insights and Big Data will backfire. Logistics is probably a good example. According to Trax Technologies, 30% of the invoices are problematic leading to major errors and losses in settlements. In some industries, knowledge should be available in real time and even the best and most comprehensive data will be useless if those nice dashboards take ages to render at which times decisive decisions have been taken or disasters are too late to prevent.

Today, Big Data is available as a commodity either from social media platforms through open APIs or just for sale by data providers, usually with low quality. Many entrepreneurs are trying to derive added value from such data to sell later as market studies, mostly predicting the future. They can make some money if they manage to sell their reports but their profits are considered Big Data losses for those who buy them – future prediction is not that simple and source data is usually dirty and not totally authentic leading to misinformed decision making.

As a business, if you are not making the best out of small data – the core operational data for your business, you are likely to rock the Big Data boat. Your actual customer feedback is more important than online surveys and ratings, and randomly inspecting your QA line is usually more accurate than data mining social media comments. Small data has higher ROI rates for most businesses.

This is not saying that Big Data is irrelevant or unprofitable. However, many Big Data projects end up as white elephants and not cash cows. With Big Data comes a long laundry list of data governance that could either produce a cash stream or end up as a data tsunami.

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Focus Less On Social Media, More On Your Website

Let’s face it! As a business, do you know who your customers are and where they hang on online? (Hint: Social media is no longer a valid answer). Social media is like transportation hubs with plenty of busy people seeking different destinations (or wasting time and keeping company).

From the late MySpace to the current list of competing young and aging social platforms (and the new kids on the block), your potential customers are deserting one platform to the other leaving your investment on marketing and advertising to the wind. There are no solid metrics and no easy way to measure your return on investment in social advertising. Budget allocation is driven by fear of competition and inability to comprehend and keep up with changing advertising dynamics among social media outlets, not to mention the pressure of the new industry that revolves around social media marketing like agencies, analytics firms and so on.

Attracted by the economy of scale and ease of use, social media has become a popular and easy target for scams and privacy threats. Your advertising budget may be burned in seconds on fake profiles, click farms or even bots pretending to click your links or fill your forms. Just look around and you will see fans, followers, likes and views being sold online as if it is another stock market. You are not only losing your money, but your website is sitting there collecting dust.

Granted that social media is not going to disappear anytime soon, there is no doubt it is losing efficiency to say the least. Your Facebook post is not reaching your fans (unless you pay or convince fans to interact). With hundreds of liked pages and accounts to follow (ex. Twitter), you can be sure your organic or paid presence does not capture much attention and may even be filtered out. And let’s admit it – social media is becoming less social and more commercial – after all, they now have investors and stakeholders to please with nice looking balance sheets.

So, should you just ignore your presence on social platforms? Not yet. However, you should optimize based on resources and target audience. Post a picture on Facebook, upload a video on YouTube or tweet your next activity, but don’t spend much there. The alternative? Your website (and blog) and traditional media coverage – unless and until a worthy innovation is out.

Your website is your official identity online. Keep it up to date and promote it. Make is SEO and user friendly for different screen sizes. Enrich it with relevant and new content. Attract visitors but do not pull their legs or push content down their throats. Be an attractive flower and be sure that bees and butterflies will discover you and enjoy the visit.

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Arab Business Network (ABN)

Arab Business Network is a new, and unique, LinkedIn group for business professionals. “Yet another group?” you would say, and the answer is “not quite, it’s a VIP one”. “So what?” you’d ask. ¬†Well, glad you asked. Here’s the rationale and story behind it.

ABN was formed thanks to both technical and operational difficulties and it aims at solving both. The technical part has to do with how LinkedIn groups are run and managed. I will not dwell further on this part as it was covered in a previous article. The main reason why ABN exists is what matters.
The Arab region has a great, yet not fully utilized, business potential. Think about the geographic and demographic characteristics of this part of the world. It has a great market size and a considerable market share as well. However, there are a few common challenges and gaps that can be easily identified across the region. Areas like innovation support, entrepreneurship, startup funding and marketing, IPR and sales management (shipping, addressing, payments, …) still have room for improvement. Despite issues of political stability in some countries (all parts of the world are subject to different instabilities), the collective economic aspects are very promising.

Imagine an adequate atmosphere where ideas are cultivated, innovators are mentored, connections are established, enabling funding is provided and partnerships are formed. The future projection of such an environment is great businesses in information technology, telecommunications, tourism, media, improved education and health, e-business, green energy and other areas that are now possible only by a stretch of imagination. This is what ABN is trying to help achieve.

ABN will function as a virtual incubator, a mentoring platform, a networking tool, a partnership enabler and a framework to help exchange ideas, knowledge, best practices, success and failure, problems and solutions, constructive discussions and feedback. At ABN, you are expected to give before you take.
As a unique platform, ABN is restricted, closed and limited in membership count. We care more about quality and relevance. Our ability to deliver, serve our membership base and manage the group in a timely manner is what counts. To stay focused and specialized, ABN does not offer jobs and promotions, all our content is based on relevant discussions and comments. We feel there are many groups and platforms for promotions and jobs and decided to stay away from these areas. We ask our members to be both active on regular basis and to limit their daily contribution to few items.

Our typical group members are innovators, entrepreneurs, startups and angel investors in the region as well as those willing to help and support advance our cause. A good example would be a college professor offering mentoring in business development or a journalist covering early stage innovators and startups.

First hand necessity for such a platform came out as part of the group owner’s experience in building Ezy Discount ( a startup for low ceremony, nearby deals with privacy – the G3 in coupon and voucher industry). As a cloud based service, product development and distribution were not an issue, but marketing and sales were not easy. The closest market was small and weak; funding options were very limited, demanding, lacked true partnership, and tied to non-business agenda. Apart from this first hand experience, we have witnessed great ideas, from student projects to innovative startups, wither out for similar reasons and decided to do something about it.

If you feel the same, have some enthusiasm, plan to help or see future potential in this endeavor, you are most welcome to jump aboard and sail with us. The group requires Linked In membership and can be found at http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=8104355

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