Big companies use big data to make big decisions – but what about small and medium businesses? The good news is most companies, regardless of size, are sitting on more data than they realise. Does this qualify as 'big data'? If it's enough to help you make better business decisions, then… yes.
Thanks to advances in areas like cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS), the playing field for pulling insights from business data is close to level. With a little planning and know-how, even the smallest companies can match the giants when it comes to turning data into a competitive advantage. Here are some answers to the key questions you should be asking.
1. Just what is 'business intelligence'?
Gartner defines business intelligence as:
an umbrella term that includes the applications, infrastructure and tools, and best practices that enable access to and analysis of information to improve and optimize decisions and performance.
In practical terms, using business intelligence usually involves transferring information (about customers, stock levels, purchasing patterns, cash flow, product releases and more) into a database that you can query. If not a database, you might use some other piece of software to take information from various places to produce reports, graphics, and other collateral that can give you insights.
2. How can using big data benefit my business?
Once you've started generating insights from your data you'll find nearly infinite ways to use it, but typical applications include:
- Strategic decision-making: backing up your experience, judgment and industry know-how with solid, data-based insights will help you better understand your business's ebb and flow, and how to manage it.
- Revenue growth: better information about what's profitable and what your customers like, which suppliers are most valuable and which products or services are typically sold together will help your business perform better.
- Competitive advantage: patterns in your data may reveal new insights, product ideas or customer demands that your rivals haven’t discovered yet.
- Customer service: the better you know and understand your customers, the better you'll be able to serve them, through a tuning your business more closely to their needs, and even by personalising your service and communications.
- Improved efficiency: understanding your business operations in detail will help you identify efficiencies and opportunities for cost optimisation that can help you save money and operate better.
3. Where can I start using business intelligence?
It's a simple approach: identify your greatest pain points (e.g. difficulty gaining new customers; unreliable suppliers; excessive power or utility bills) and make sure you're gathering as much data around them as you can. Want more sales from your online store? Explore your web analytics. Want better cashflow? Look at your inventory and supplier data.
Then look for the right tool to gather the data. The right tool is the one you can use to ask the right questions. These may range from simple database queries to more complex operations using specialised tools. If you're not sure how to proceed, shop around for a good third-party supplier who can assist.
4. Collect ALL the data
In addition to gathering as much data as possible as it flows your way, you also want to store everything indefinitely. The more historical data you have, the easier it is to make comparisons, chart growth, identify trends and more – plus the bigger data set will make your findings more accurate.
But your data won't be 'big' for long if it goes missing. Make multiple backups of everything and make sure you have a solid disaster recovery plan. If you're using online storage, whether it’s Dropbox or a specialised cloud service, it's still worth making regular physical backups that are stored off-site.
One caution to bear in mind is customer privacy. New regulations are coming into force around the world, and even laws in other jurisdictions can impact your local business. For example, the EU's general data protection regulation (GDPR) applies to any business, anywhere in the world, that deals with EU citizens' private information.
Business intelligence isn't a new thing, so a great place to start is by asking whoever is already helping you with your IT. Chances are they're already helping someone else get the advantages that big data brings.