The utility of big data, forecasting and research

I enjoyed Martyn Jones’ (no relation) blog on the Contradictions of Big Data.  He argues that the digital economy’s ability to generate a large amount of wide ranging data very quickly (so-called high volume, variety and velocity) does not change how data should be managed.  It prompted me to think about a couple of things I’ve learned over the years.

The first is how new ideas emerge that appear to assure any business’ future success.  Over the years total quality management, lean, outsourcing, six sigma, big data, etc. etc. etc. have all been touted as ‘golden bullets’.  The mechanism that hypes these concepts would be fascinating to explore.  My guess it is a combination of the publication of a book or a series of articles on the concept, these being actively promoted by the authors or publishers or consulting firm(s), effective marketing at airport book stores, public appearances but the author(s) at influential conferences and events, an insatiable appetite by business leaders for better ways to manage their business, and catchy terminology.  Personally I’ve always liked the adage that business is about doing the right things and doing them right. Many of the business fads may be right thing, the hard bit is always in the doing of them right.

My second thought relates to business leader’s other insatiable appetite, which is to know what will happen in the future.  This is one of the reason that industry practitioners and business academics do not always get on.   Most academic research, almost by definition, is based on historic data, so it tends to explain what has happened  in the past.  Managers are not interested in this, they want to know what will happen next week, next month and next year.  Which is where we come back to big data.  It does not matter how much, how wide ranging, or how quick data becomes, if it’s not turned into information of value to the firm.

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