Data Driven: Using Big Data to Gain Competitive Advantage

One-in-two business leaders don’t have sufficient information from across their organizations to do their jobs, and one-in-three business leaders are forced to frequently make critical decisions without the data they need.

Big data

Those are some of the findings from the IBM Business Analytics and Optimization for the Intelligent Enterprise study. For the study, IBM surveyed 225 business leaders worldwide and found that companies are operating without access to the right information.

Data analytics represents a significant opportunity to close those gaps and create new business advantage. The goal is to leverage “big data.”

What is big data?

As a computational biologist, I’ve talked about big data in biomedical research for years. It received special attention in February 2011: Science magazine ran a special issue called Dealing with Data.

In data scientists dealing with data, I quoted from an article on the current informatics challenges in genomics written by Scott Kahn, Vice President and CIO at Illumina, a biotechnology company that develops, manufactures and markets integrated systems for the analysis of genetic variation and biological function. Scott wrote that, in just a few years, there’s been an over 400,000% daily increase in next-generation sequencing (NGS) data generation!

Big data is also impacting  business, government and everyday life. In the everyday world, big data is the 2.5 quintillion (that’s eighteen zeros) byes of structured and unstructured data created every day. Big data refers to the general problem of data becoming too large or too unstructured for conventional systems to analyze. It’s remote sensor data, posts to social media, digital pictures and videos, financial transactions, cell phone GPS signals…in fact, we’re creating so much data today that 90% of it was created in just the last two years [2].

Big data: the next frontier

The McKinsey Global Institute, a management consulting firm, recently published a report on big data, calling it the “the next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity” [3]. According to McKinsey, the use of big data is becoming a key way for companies to outperform their competitors.

Think you’re business is too small for big data? Consider these questions:

  • Can you construct a profile of an average customer over the last 5 years? What characteristic(s) affect revenue for the product(s) sold or service(s) delivered?
  • How do your customers interact with your brand’s touchpoints?
  • Do you have the capability to assess data associated with your website?
  • Can you aggregate and analyze the comments made about your company on Facebook or Twitter?

Big data analytics enable companies to make better business decisions using critical data that may not be captured by conventional business intelligence processes. Indeed, big data analytics can help companies gain competitive advantage, for example, by measuring everything (attitudes, reactions, time spent at your website, products/services viewed, leads, etc.), providing industry or product insights, tracking and predicting purchases and trends, and improving operations.

Unfortunately, big data is still a little too big for small business. Research by Techaisle, a market research and industry analyst organization, found that only 12% of small businesses using business intelligence are interested in big data analytics [4]. The reason? The ability or expertise required to implement big data strategies. However, Techaisle said that there is a potential for big data to get a big boost from the cloud. “A move to cloud with big data analytics as a service is not far-fetched as small and medium-sized businesses will look to eliminate costs from building in-house infrastructure to support big data analysis.”


  1. Kahn SD. On the Future of Genomic Data. Science. 2011 Feb 11;331(6018):728-9.
  2. What is big data? IBM. Accessed 2012 May 20.
  3. Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity. McKinsey Global Institute. 2011 May.
  4. 1/3 of US mid market businesses using business intelligence are interested in big data analytics; lack of exertise is main barrier. Techaisle. 2012 Apr 26.

Walter Jessen is a digital strategist, writer, web developer and data scientist. You can typically find him behind the screen something with an internet connection.

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