Actually, Every Company Is a Big Data Company

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A Danger Programmer Pours One Out For The Hiptop

Every day companies collect data about their customers and industries, simply as an artifact of the act conducting business. As I listened to a panel on Big Data yesterday at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., I had an epiphany: every company is a Big Data company, it’s just that some get it and some don’t.

There is a notion around cloud computing that companies born in the cloud have an advantage over those that are transitioning to the cloud because they have an acute understanding of how it works that a company moving to the cloud can’t possibly match. There is a similar idea of companies that are raised on using data to drive their company and those searching for ways to do that.

Panel member Barry Morris, founder and CEO at NuoDB, repeatedly brought up electric car maker Tesla as an example of a company that uses data as part of the act of doing business to make business decisions. There isn’t this deliberate process of trying to figure out how to use data. They just do it.

As Morris explained, Tesla doesn’t have a committee studying how to take advantage of data. Instead, they are constantly looking at the data being delivered to them from the cars themselves. This data tells them when brake pads are going to wear out, how far people are getting on a single charge to the battery and the most logical place to build the next charging station. They are monitoring every bit of data they can collect, and while they aren’t selling data, they are using it as an integral part of how they do business.

This idea of data as a business artifact was driven home further when I spoke to Burton M. Goldfield, who is CEO at TriNet, a company that handles human resources-related regulatory and and legal issues for small business.

As Goldfield pointed out, they count 9,000 business with over 240,000 employees under their watch. They handle payroll and benefits and other services for these businesses, and that gives them tremendous insight into the health and well-being of small business, simply by the act of conducting business.

They put out a report every month on the state of the small business jobs market. Right now it’s free, a handy bit of content marketing to show off the company expertise, but Goldfield says because they have their finger on the pulse of small business, they can generate this kind of report, whether they choose to monetize it or not.

As an example of the kind of deep understanding they can get from this data, Goldfield told me, they saw venture capitalist bonus checks dry up in 2008. He says they didn’t realize what it meant as it happened, but in hindsight they know it was a warning sign of a deeper economic crisis.

Just this week Amazon released a report on the 20 most well-read cities in America. According to a press release, they generated this list, “by compiling sales data of all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format from April 2013 to April 2014, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents.” Like TriNet, Amazon is simply creating a report that provides fodder for discussion and takes advantage of the information they collect as part of the act of selling books and periodicals.

Brian Lillie who is CIO at Equinix, a company that provides data center services, says they use data as part of their business because it makes sense to measure what’s happening at their data centers and find ways to operate them most efficiently.  “We use data to predictively watch for issues before they happen,” Lillie told me.

When is a part about to fail? How can they reduce cooling costs? All of this information helps them at the business level because the sooner they understand this information and run more efficiently, the more money they are likely to make. It just makes good business sense.

Lillie says they have discussed how to use the data they collect as part of the act of doing business as a product, but nothing is imminent. However he says, they certainly see the value of the data, and they are exploring how to use it.

One thing is clear from this, every company collects data as part of what they do, whether they think in those terms or not. They can use this data in any number of ways, whether it’s simply as a content marketing exercise, for internal purposes to calibrate their businesses, or as a way to drive new types of business based on the data they collect.

Regardless, companies that use data to make decisions and understand their customer’s needs better are going to be smarter companies. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as people make it. In baseball parlance, see the ball, hit the ball. Collect the data, use the data.

It’s just about understanding what you do and taking advantage of the information you collect as part of the act of doing business.

If you can do that, you’re on your way to being a big data company, because in the end, every company is a big data company. Some know it. Some have yet to figure it out.

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