January 15, 2013

Big Data, Big Opportunities, Big Challenges Part 1

Jan. 15, 2013 at 08:15 AM | By Todd Gibby | Comment Count

There have been several articles in recent weeks and months, dedicated to the trending topic of big data. What is it? How can we use it? What results will it produce?

These are all questions fueling the discussion and rightfully so. As it has in the broader business world and public sector, there is no doubt that over time this trend can have a monumental impact on student performance and influence the way our market operates.  But a more immediate question being discussed among educators, university leaders, and vendor-partners like Hobsons is: How can we tap into this BIG resource now?

First, it seems useful to clarify what we mean by the term “Big Data.”  Like most popular expressions, it can mean many different things and be twisted in a thousand directions (think: social media, SEO, campus portals, online learning, content management, and balanced scorecard, just to name a few).  While I don’t claim to be the authority on such things, one definition that I like is the following:

Big Data is the collection, enrichment, and analysis of extremely large data sets…to inform decision-making and action.

Both parts of this definition are really important.  The first part brings to mind the analogy of an impressionist painting.  In an impressionist painting, if one looks too closely at any one point or brush-stroke, it appears meaningless.  But, pull your lens back in order to provide a broader perspective, and a compelling picture emerges.  So too, is this the case with isolated points of data, versus large data sets that house meaningful insights, to be unlocked with the appropriate vision and skills.

The second part…the “actionable” part…is also critical, in my mind.   Data analysis without correlate action or decision-making seems like a waste of time and energy.  Whereas, translating bits of information into actionable insights that can make decision-making a little easier is something that seems universally valuable.  Perhaps the analogy of the impressionist painting (or art more broadly) can even be extended here: like art, if data opens your mind, changes your mindset, and drives your behavior, then it was valuable.  If not, well…

With that as a working definition, it is tempting to move on to the more alluring question of what specifically can Big Data help us achieve?  In the commercial world, we have already seen Big Data help companies like Amazon and Marinexplore scour data “goldmines” to gain competitive advantage, improve client services, and even determine the oceanographic impact of a hurricane. These are but a few examples of Big Data’s anticipated capabilities and global reach. In fact, when Harvard Business Review surveyed executives at Fortune 1000 companies earlier this year, “85% of all organizations reported they have Big Data initiatives planned or in progress.”

But, as with any new technology, before we can get to the pay-off, a single trending challenge remains steadfast: implementation.

Want more on Big Data? Continue reading this series in Big Data, Big Opportunities, Big Challenges Part 2.

Todd Gibby is president of Higher Education at Hobsons. Connect with Todd on Twitter (@tgibby) and LinkedIn.

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