Here are the top five actions tech managers should be taking today to lay out a proper foundation for the big-data era of tomorrow.
Take stock of your data
Nearly every organization potentially has access to a steady stream of unstructured data -- whether it's pouring in from social media networks or from sensors monitoring a factory floor. But just because an organization is producing this fire hose of information, that doesn't mean there's a business imperative to save and act on every byte.
"With this initial surge around big data, people are feeling an artificial need to understand all the data out there coming from Web logs or sensors," notes Neil Raden, an analyst at Constellation Research.
Part of that anxiety may be coming from vendors and consultants eager to promote the next big thing in enterprise computing. "There's a certain push to this coming from people who are commercializing the technology," Raden observes.
Smart IT managers will resist the urge to try to drink from the fire hose and will instead serve as a filter in helping to figure out what data is and isn't relevant to the organization.
A good first step is to take stock of what data is created internally and determine what external data sources, if any, would fill in knowledge gaps and bring added insight to the business, Raden says.
Once the data scoping is underway, IT should proceed with highly targeted projects that can be used to showcase results as opposed to opting for big-bang, big data projects. "You don't have to spend a few million dollars to start a project and see if it's worth it," Raden says.
Let business needs prevail
You may have heard this before, but IT-business alignment is critical to an initiative as huge and varied as big data, IT analysts say. Many of the initial big data opportunities got started in areas outside of IT; marketing departments, for example, have been tapping into social media streams to gain better insights into customer requirements and buying trends.
While specialists in specific disciplines on the business side may recognize the money-making opportunities, it is IT's responsibility to take charge of the data-sharing and data-federation concepts that are part and parcel of a big-data strategy.
"This is not something IT can go out and do on its own," says Dave Patton, principal information management industries analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "It will be hard to turn this into a story of success if [the initiative] is not aligned to business objectives."
Early in Catalina Marketing's big-data initiative, Williams brought business managers together with its FPA (financial planning and analysis) group in a team effort to make a business case for information architecture investments.
The business side identified areas where new insights could deliver value -- for example, in determining subsequent purchases based on shopping cart items or through a next-buy analysis based on product offers -- and the FPA team ran the numbers to quantify what the results would mean in terms of enhanced productivity or increased sales.
Big data initiatives will require major changes in both server and storage infrastructure and information management architecture at most companies, according to Gartner's Beyer and other experts. IT managers need to be prepared to expand their systems to deal with the ever-expanding stores of structured and unstructured data, they say.
That requires figuring out the best approach to making systems both extensible and scalable and developing a road map for integrating all of the disparate systems that will feed the big-data analysis effort.