Will big data go away?

That was just one of the many questions debated during the “Big Data, Analytics and Insights” session at this year’s MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, held in late May 2014. The panel was moderated by Professor Tom Davenport, Fellow with the MIT Center for Digital Business, and included Barry Morris, Founder & CEO of NuoDB; Darrell Fernandes, CIO of the Professional Services Group at Fidelity Investments; Don Taylor, CTO of Benefitfocus; and Puneet Batra, Founder of LevelTrigger.

The short answer to that question is “maybe.” The term "big data," which Davenport pointed out took off during the last quarter of 2010, means different things to different people. For some, big data refers to unstructured data. But to others, it refers to the variety, velocity, and volume of data that companies can attempt to harness for competitive advantage. In order to bring clarification to the discussion, Don Taylor often refers to it as “unwieldy” data. Other terms that are gaining some traction in the industry are “data-wise,” “data intelligence,” and “e-knowledge.” 

Regardless of what the industry (or more accurately, the vendors) eventually decides to call it, the panel largely agreed that successful big data initiatives will have some key elements to them:


  • They will be done by organizations that are data-driven

  • The efforts will be led by the CEO, or at least by the C-Suite

  • They must be focused on business outcomes


As Batra explained, “[Big data] is really about how to connect data assets to consistently drive business outcomes.” That value proposition might sound drastically different to those who view big data through the lens of only unstructured data.

As with nearly any technology discussion, the panelists tackled the “build versus buy” debate. Both Morris and Batra referenced Tesla’s building its own ERP system; Batra encouraged the audience to buy big data solutions rather than build their own. The only reason to build a solution, Batra explained, was if it is a true business differentiator.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what big data is eventually called; the process of harnessing, analyzing, and understanding the large amounts of data in an organization will become a competitive advantage.

Tom Davenport is a Fellow with the MIT Center for Digital Business, the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management for Babson College, and a Co-Founder of the International Institute for Analytics. Davenport teaches in MIT Sloan’s upcoming Executive Education program, Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler, occurring July 9-10, 2014.

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