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'Big data' management? More like 'big decisions' management

'Big data' management worries CIOs, who want to be sure that business intelligence efforts are worth it. To start, make smart big decisions first.

You know the topic of "big data" management has really made it when The Harvard Business Review puts it on the cover of its latest issue.

The informative article by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson is strategic in focus, as you would expect. One point in particular stood out: Of the five challenges outlined by the authors, only one is technology-based. The others -- leadership, talent management, decision making and company culture -- are all people-based.

This point was in evidence at last week's CIO 360 dinner event in Chicago. The meeting's topic was business intelligence, analytics and big data, but few of the guests discussed technology challenges. Rather, they focused on the business factors that come to bear in the age of a data-driven economy.

"It's not so much about big data," one guest said. "It's about big decisions."

Indeed, guest speaker Tom Trainer, former CIO at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, recounted a story from the mid-'90s, when the company realized it had to change its core competency from drug development to "information management" due to the human genome mapping project -- a big data assignment if there ever was one.

Big decisions about big data need to be made either from the top or with 100% buy-in from the top.

That was the first big decision. But suddenly, that idea spurred many others, like creating radically aggressive goals for productivity, and a new culture in which data could no longer be "hoarded" by scientists but must be shared in order to maximize value.

Leadership decisions about big data management

The other main point Trainer made is that big decisions about big data need to be made either from the top or with 100% buy-in from the top. In the case of Lilly, it was senior management who made the push for the genome data initiative. "If you are going to transform the business, and if it's not sponsored by the corner office or the board, if it's not supported by money and all that implies, and everyone gets dinged if the goal isn't achieved – then that mentality liberates people to buy in and gives them a place to go," Trainer said.

Other dinner guests echoed the big-decision ramifications of the data-driven business. One said that his company has always done what is now considered big data, so they are ahead of the game and can start building on processes in order to make them more efficient, improve response time, and more importantly, figure out how to add more value to their customer and integrate the business's process into the customer's.

So, strategy matters. Buy-in matters. Data isn't anything until it is turned into information, and information doesn't matter until it can be used to improve the business or life for the customer.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, Site Editor. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket.

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