Big Data? Size Doesn’t Matter. It’s What You Do With It, That Counts.

Eric Vacin  

July 21, 2014

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Way back in June of 2012, a study revealed that big data had reached a tipping point:

"Technologies that manage and analyze data are easier to use and are more readily accessible to wider groups of employees in the workplace. Further, more people are empowered to make well- informed decisions from the data."

By September 2012, the Harvard Business Review had published an article on their blog entitled, “What Executives Don't Understand About Big Data”. I would venture to guess that when many executives read that title, not only did they not understand big data, most probably wondered "big what?" Now, in the nearly two years that have passed, big data has exploded. It has become the catchall for everything from recommendation engines to trending social media topics.

Here's a snapshot of how interest in big data has increased over the last few years from Google Trends.


"The big data revolution is that now we can do something with the data."
- Gary King, quoted in Harvard Magazine

I'm not going to tell you what is big data. You can find plenty of places that spin the term.  You can also find more on this in the March-April 2014 issue of Harvard Magazine, "Why "Big Data" is a Big Deal."

But I will tell you what big data is not: it's not your measly little hard drive of web data. An enterprise website might generate a few gigabytes of data in a year. For example, WebTrends says you should plan for 5 Gigabytes of data per profile annually. Five terabytes is 1,000 times as large, and five petabytes 1,000 times larger than that!


"Five exabytes" (note: one exabyte is 1,000 petabytes) is commonly quoted as the amount of storage necessary to catalog every word ever spoken by humans. That's only half the size of Google's combined data centers.

So it's true, when people come to us talking about their “big data,” they may have been misguided on the terminology. Helping our clients understand how they can profit from using data and how to utilize it to create compelling digital experiences, gets us really excited. We here at Extractable love that! Over the past two years, we’ve witnessed that more and more humans are thinking about data, talking about data, and most importantly USING data to grow their businesses in innovative ways. The central principle of note here is that it's the humans that are doing it.

So much of the talk about big data is about all the revolutionary tools that have been developed in terms of software and hardware that allow us to analyze data that was just too big a few years ago. But, one thing that tends to get lost is…

Data Is Useless Without the Right Humans to Analyze It

And company executives are starting to realize that. You need a mixed team that can conduct data-driven experiments, interpret data, and create innovative customer experiences. A strong team should have:

Humans that like to experiment

The web is the ultimate petri dish for these folks. Not only have online transactions given analysts access to data about what people do and buy online, but it gives it to them quickly and succinctly.  This makes it comparatively easy to test new ideas. But, also needed are people to come up with those ideas, generate hypotheses, and think like a mad scientist. Computers can't do that very well. 


Humans that like to analyze

Modeling and variance aren't just for data nerds anymore. You need leaders who get it. Computers are great at slicing up data and presenting it to the humans quickly and efficiently, but the human being still needs to figure out what to do with it and make conclusions about what the data shows. These analytic types extract insights and drive action.


Humans that like to strategize

These folks drive organizational transformations. They understand how their mission connects with a better use of data.


We are the humans.

At Extractable, these types of thinkers are key members of the our team. They are working every day, experimenting, analyzing and strategizing to tackle our clients toughest challenges. As you are starting to think about what this all means to you, here are some things to keep in mind.

The data you have matters less than what you do with it.
Maybe you have one piece of data. Deciding what it means and then basing a decision on it, might turn out to be critical. Sure, we'd like to always have more data. We're operating from a position of limited information.

Data doesn't replace the need for human judgment; it enhances it.
Remember, just because you've spent $1M on a super computer, doesn't mean you can send the humans home. It means you need the right people to help you decide where to bet the next million.

Data doesn't drive results, people do.
As we've learned, having data, and more data, and the right data and the right people to analyze it is important. From there it falls to leadership. If you're not creating the culture, rewarding your people for data-driven thinking, measuring what you're doing and changing course appropriately, all the cloud computing power in the word isn't going to help you.

The data keeps coming.
If you're still worried that your data isn't big enough. Don't worry; it will get bigger. The challenge you will face, will be to keep on top of it, keep optimizing, and keep growing.

Thanks to Derek Johnson for the incredible illustrations.