Big Data: The Management Revolution

From Harvard Business Review by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson

There’s much wisdom in that saying, which has been attributed to both W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker, and it explains why the recent explosion of digital data is so important. Simply put, because of big data, managers can measure, and hence know, radically more about their businesses, and directly translate that knowledge into improved decision making and performance.

Consider retailing. Booksellers in physical stores could always track which books sold and which did not. If they had a loyalty program, they could tie some of those purchases to individual customers. And that was about it. Once shopping moved online, though, the understanding of customers increased dramatically. Online retailers could track not only what customers bought, but also what else they looked at; how they navigated through the site; how much they were influenced by promotions, reviews, and page layouts; and similarities across individuals and groups. Before long, they developed algorithms to predict what books individual customers would like to read next—algorithms that performed better every time the customer responded to or ignored a recommendation. Traditional retailers simply couldn’t access this kind of information, let alone act on it in a timely manner. It’s no wonder that Amazon has put so many brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business.

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The familiarity of the Amazon story almost masks its power. We expect companies that were born digital to accomplish things that business executives could only dream of a generation ago. But in fact the use of big data has the potential to transform traditional businesses as well. It may offer them even greater opportunities for competitive advantage (online businesses have always known that they were competing on how well they understood their data). As we’ll discuss in more detail, the big data of this revolution is far more powerful than the analytics that were used in the past. We can measure and therefore manage more precisely than ever before. We can make better predictions and smarter decisions. We can target more-effective interventions, and can do so in areas that so far have been dominated by gut and intuition rather than by data and rigor.

As the tools and philosophies of big data spread, they will change long-standing ideas about the value of experience, the nature of expertise, and the practice of management. Smart leaders across industries will see using big data for what it is: a management revolution. But as with any other major change in business, the challenges of becoming a big data–enabled organization can be enormous and require hands-on—or in some cases hands-off—leadership. Nevertheless, it’s a transition that executives need to engage with today.

What’s New Here?

Business executives sometimes ask us, “Isn’t ‘big data’ just another way of saying ‘analytics’?” It’s true that they’re related: The big data movement, like analytics before it, seeks to glean intelligence from data and translate that into business advantage. However, there are three key differences:

Volume. As of 2012, about 2.5 exabytes of data are created each day, and that number is doubling every 40 months or so. More data cross the internet every second than were stored in the entire internet just 20 years ago. This gives companies an opportunity to work with many petabyes of data in a single data set—and not just from the internet. For instance, it is estimated that Walmart collects more than 2.5 petabytes of data every hour from its customer transactions. A petabyte is one quadrillion bytes, or the equivalent of about 20 million filing cabinets’ worth of text. An exabyte is 1,000 times that amount, or one billion gigabytes.

Velocity. For many applications, the speed of data creation is even more important than the volume. Real-time or nearly real-time information makes it possible for a company to be much more agile than its competitors. For instance, our colleague Alex “Sandy” Pentland and his group at the MIT Media Lab used location data from mobile phones to infer how many people were in Macy’s parking lots on Black Friday—the start of the Christmas shopping season in the United States. This made it possible to estimate the retailer’s sales on that critical day even before Macy’s itself had recorded those sales. Rapid insights like that can provide an obvious competitive advantage to Wall Street analysts and Main Street managers.

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