Business Experts Discuss Big Data

Feature Article | January 25, 2012 by Heather McIlvaine

Since 2005, the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference in Munich, Germany, has been bringing together a diverse group of leaders and creative thinkers from the worlds of business, science, and culture. Whereas most conferences are specifically set up for people in the same profession to discuss a rather narrow range of topics, the DLD Conference thrives on its eclectic mix of speakers and attendees. It is a place where ideas are exchanged, innovations are introduced, and partnerships are formed.

This year, the event ran from January 22 until January 24, and the list of speakers included prominent figures from a variety of industries, such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post Media Group, and Yoko Ono.

On Tuesday afternoon, the DLD Conference ended with a special forum on technology called Technology Enabled Success (TES). Past TES events have touched on topics at the intersection of technology and business, such as e-commerce. This year the focus was on mobile commerce (m-commerce), big data, and analytics; namely, how trends like m-commerce are creating more and more data that companies must somehow gather and store, and how the analysis of that data can drive business.

Creating a mobile mindset

The TES event started with a conversation about the increasing adoption and growing importance of m-commerce for retailers. Dr. Klaus Driever, managing director of Weltbild, the largest retailer of books and media in German-speaking countries, is responsible for m-commerce and e-commerce. For Driever, mobility isn’t necessarily a question of devices or technology, but rather of mindset. Should you build a device-specific app or a mobile Web site that can be accessed by all devices? And how should you organize information so that it’s easy to navigate with a fingertip rather than a mouse?

These are important points for retailers to consider at a time when m-commerce is gaining widespread acceptance very quickly. A report by the digital business analyst comScore showed a 112% increase from 2010 to 2011 in the number of German smartphone users that accessed a mobile retail site with their smartphones. And an earlier report showed a 163% increase in mobile retail access via smartphone in the U.K.

This rapid adoption of m-commerce simultaneously presents new opportunities and challenges for retailers. For one, Driever would like to see more seamless integration between the physical and the virtual, such as a technology solution that could identify a person in a brick-and-mortar store and connect them with their digital profile of online purchases. That’s where big data comes in.

Putting big data to use

2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day. There is a wealth of information out there, and businesses are all trying to figure out how they can make it work for them. At the TES event, Dr. Werner Vogels, vice president and CTO of Amazon.com, was called on to discuss big data in the enterprise.

Vogels is no stranger to this topic. After all, Amazon’s recommendation system owes its accuracy to big data. And today most companies, no matter how small, are doing some form of data tracking and analytics. For many of these companies, though, the focus is too much on how to analyze big data, says Vogels. There are actually five steps to using big data in the enterprise: collect, store, organize, analyze, and share. According to Vogels, the first step is the most important because the more information you collect, the more accurate and refined your results will be. Storing so much data yourself, however, is infeasible. Cloud computing is the logical alternative.

The combination of big data and cloud computing is closing the gap between large companies, which traditionally have had lots of data and the resources to analyze it, and small companies, which are usually able to react more quickly to new trends and information. Now the differentiating factor will be how companies turn information into business decisions. And in that case, big data is just a means to the end.

Data-driven commerce

Heidi Messer, co-founder and chairman of Collective[i], a business intelligence platform, and Robert Stephens, CTO for Best Buy, weighed in on how companies can apply big data insights to solve business problems.

The online retail industry could easily leverage big data to create pricing models that are more similar to those used by airlines. By analyzing customer behavior and purchase patterns, retailers could determine the most profitable time to offer sales and promotions.

Furthermore, companies can use the information they gather to personalize customer relationships. An airline might use big data to remember that you prefer an aisle seat, or an online retailer could automatically suggest new items you might like. Of course, there’s a fine line between using data to individualize a customer’s experience and invading people’s sense of privacy.

Stephens thinks it will just take time for social acceptance to catch up with technology. In ten years, he says, no one will even mention big data. It will just be the way of doing business.

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