An Era of Game-Changing Insight From Big Data

December 19, 2014

This article was published in Business Horizon Quarterly, Issue #12.

It is available as a PDF here

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By Daniel S. Pelino, General Manager, Global Public Sector, IBM Corporation

We face a curious challenge in our information age. We have at our fingertips a skyrocketing variety of data. In fact, during the past two years, the world generated a zettabyte of data, more information than humans created in all of history.[i]

We are armed with devices, apps, sensors, and social media feeds, all gathering an endless stream of information about the world around us. Just consider that within four short years the number of mobile and connected devices—10 billion—will dwarf the world’s population of 7.6 billion.[ii]

And through the sharing, publishing, and building on data that we’re doing so furiously and so creatively using the cloud, mobile, and social media, we’re transforming industries, reshaping politics, and utterly changing what it means to be connected in our daily lives.

Yet, as we amass more data, it’s becoming clear that more information doesn’t automatically equal more knowledge. Data, on its own, can’t provide insights. As we collect an ever-more dizzying array and amount of data, we’re having a harder time making sense of this treasure trove we’re amassing. Our society and economy have become one gigantic data feed, with information flowing in from corporate networks, supply chains, sensor networks, Twitter, Facebook, apps, and texts. We’re more informed than ever and more overwhelmed.

We understand from experience the profound value of this data and the innovation it drives. The waves of change during the past two decades, sparked initially by the Internet, then social media, then mobile, were all propelled by this sudden access to data and new ways of using and sharing that information. The rise of social media as a tool for marketing the speeding up of globalization and the acceleration of financial markets are all data driven. 

This is our basic challenge going forward. It’s not that innovation is coming to a standstill. It’s that the transformations we’ve lived through make us realize that we’re not making the most of this goldmine of information. Especially as we face a building data deluge. What we need are new approaches to driving innovation through data. Ones that crack open this information to broader groups of people and organizations, that dish up transformative ways of sifting through mountains of data, and that create new platforms that we can use to encourage more data-powered services and collaboration. 

Mobile is one of the ripest areas for change. The iPad, the iPhone, and the torrent of smart gadgets that followed refashioned our daily lives as consumers. Now it’s business’s turn to be reshaped by mobile. Smart devices and Big Data analytics are being paired together to remake business and reimagine professions.

This coming transformation, as big as the one that changed consumer society, is why IBM and Apple partnered together this summer. Our goal is to spread advanced mobile and data analysis technology throughout corporations. We want to bring Big Data analytics down to the fingertips of people within organizations. So we can spend more time at work focused on making decisions, not running around trying to find information. So that companies can unleash the full potential of their employees, craft new business models, and get the right products and services to customers when and where they want them.

While plenty of us inside companies are already toting around smart devices, we aren’t getting the most out of them. We’re using them for humdrum tasks rather than as decision-making tools. E-mail, including calendaring and contacts, is currently considered an organizations’ most important mobile application.[iii] And when businesses create apps, they’re aimed primarily at creating stronger connections with consumers and dishing up more customer services, not reshaping internal organizations.[iv]

Analytics will be the key to unlocking mobile’s potential within companies, to creating apps that make work more efficient, productive, and smarter. Corporations have massive troves of data about their clients and business processes. They’ve refashioned many of their operations within corporate networks using that data. But companies haven’t used mobile to push the envelope even further, to put that data into their executives’ and workforces’ hands when, where, and how they want it. Now, they can take advantage of precisely what makes analytics and mobile powerful—the ability to pull insight out of data at a moment’s notice no matter where you are, transforming even further how we do business. 

As part of IBM’s partnership with Apple, we’re developing more than 100 new applications that will be tailored for use in industries including retail, healthcare, transportation, banking, insurance, and telecommunications. Paired together, mobile and analytics pack a punch. They will let employees working remotely sift through their colleagues’ projects and expertise to tap the knowledge they need at any given moment. Analytics apps on a smart device will help employees make sense of rapidly changing data points to make better decisions more quickly, whether on a job site or on the way to the airport. The technologies will let brokers or insurance salespeople talking to a client at lunch or in a meeting outside of the office pitch the right product at the right moment.

Consider how mobile and analytics could put analytics-based fuel planning into an airline pilot’s hands. With airlines operating on razor-thin margins and high fixed costs, fuel consumption is a major variable operating expense. An app that analyzes fuel usage needs could be very profitable. With advanced analytics, the pilot could weigh distance, weather, and historical data about the flight and airport the plane will land in to determine exactly how much fuel to take onboard before each flight.  

Or think about the challenges sales people in stores grapple with these days. Showrooming—going to a store, trying on a jacket or pair of shoes, and then whipping out a phone to compare prices or similar products online—is second nature now to most shoppers. An app, chockfull of customers’ preferences and tastes, inventory location, and the data to make real-time discounts or offers, would give salespeople the tools they need to recommend other products, dish up the kind of unique advice that will keep shoppers coming back, and save a sale.

The transformations that mobile will bring about in the workplace underscores how crucial analytics is in the age of Big Data. Analytics is the linchpin in making the most of new methods for gathering and sharing data. It’s how we manage the rising tide of data. It underpins how we gin up novel products and services, craft new business models, and pinpoint which markets to attack.

But Big Data requires more. The kind of data we’re collecting now on everything from social networks to sensors is the type of data that traditional computing systems can’t easily make sense of (i.e., unstructured data). To make the most of Big Data, we also need to come up with intuitive ways for a broader group of people (people who aren’t statisticians or computer scientists) make sense of and innovate around it. We need systems that don’t simply compute data but can learn from it and make suggestions to us about how to interpret it.

These growing demands are why IBM is investing so much in a new era of technology: the era of cognitive computing. Early this year, we launched the IBM Watson Group with an initial investment of more than $1 billion and a staff of 2,000 professionals. In September, we launched Watson Analytics, a service that puts the power of advanced analytics at the fingertips of virtually every employee in every business.

The Watson technology, which three years ago stunned the world by beating two grand champions on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, represents the first wave in the era of cognitive computing. Cognitive systems will help us make sense of Big Data. These systems are designed to learn and react as we do. They interact with people in ways that are more natural for us.

A software service delivered via the cloud, Watson Analytics combines natural language processing, computer learning capabilities, and data management behind an intuitive interface that anyone within a business can use to dig down into their company’s data. Powerful analytics are available today, but only a small fraction of business people use them to make decisions. Watson Analytics expands this kind of analysis insight past the desks of in-house statisticians and computer scientists to a much broader set of professionals.

Practically, Watson Analytics works by letting business professionals in departments throughout an organization (whether marketing, sales, operations, or finance) type in questions such as, “What are the key drivers of my product sales?” or “Which benefits drive employee retention the most?” and get answers based on how events played out in the past and what is likely to happen in the future. Some of Watson’s most crucial innovations are its ability to rank results based on probabilities and suggest actions. Using predictive analytics, it automatically surfaces relevant facts and fine tunes the data based on past questions, helping spark new questions.

Mobile and analytics inside the corporation and cognitive computing—these are the types of innovations that we at IBM are working on to drive innovation around data. Yet, data-driven innovation never rested solely (or even primarily) in our hands. Since the advent of the Internet, individuals everywhere pushed the boundaries of creativity around what it means to share, use and pull game-changing insights out of data. The first wave of this innovation rolled through the consumer market and society. Now individuals inside companies are being armed with the tools to pull insights out of data and innovate around information. It is business’ turn to feel the full effects of the democratization of data within their operations and not simply in their relationships with customers.

As general manager of IBM’s public sector business, Dan Pelino leads IBM's business in the government, education, heathcare and life sciences industries.

 


[i] Jonathan Shaw, “Why ‘Big Data’ Is a Big Deal,” Harvard Magazine, March-April

2014.

[ii] “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2013–

2018,” Cisco, Feb. 5, 2014.

[iii] “Citrix Mobility Report: A Look Ahead,” Citrix, December 2013.

[iv] “The Customer-activated Enterprise,” IBM 2013 C-Suite Study.