Big Data and other Big Words

Just returned from a congress where Big Data captured, once again, a lot of the attention. Let's be clear: Big Data refers to taking a lot of data and performing analysis over it so that you can extract some conclusions that can help make better decisions.

Looking at this definition there is absolutely nothing new in it, and there has been no dramatic change or development that should excite us like there's a world of opportunity that today is possible but 5 years ago wasn't. (Arguably, the volume of data is today significantly larger that it was before, but I leave to your judgement whether this additional data is differentially more worthy).

The Big Data hype machine teaches us two lessons at least.

First, labelling is powerful. Naming something gives it a sense of identity. Sometimes that identity captures people’s interest, creates tension, and fascinates us. Sometimes it doesn’t. But in the world we live today, not naming something is a sure road to oblivion. Besides, if you make an effort to obfuscate what’s behind the name with complex lingo, like it’s something beyond your intellectual reach, the fear of missing out (or FOMO, because this thing also has a name) will do the rest.

Second, Big Data is one of those solutions looking for a problem, which is fundamental to the dynamics of creation. Let me frame it this way. There are 2 ways my son can play a construction game.

Option 1: give him a bucket of Lego bricks.

He will pick bricks and looking at them he will find ways to use them. Where can I use this one? Hey, this one’s cool! Let’s put it in here. This process is resource driven, he will check the resources at hand and see the best way to use them.

Option 2: build a helicopter.

My kid may have a clear view of what he wants to build, a helicopter for instance, and then look around the house to pick the right stuff for the job. He may pick some bricks from the bucket, but he may also find a couple of chopsticks to make the blades. This process is driven by vision, he knows what he wants, and tries to find the right resources to build it.

If my son is building a helicopter, no matter how cool a lego piece is, if it doesn’t help him build a helicopter, he will not consider it. But I see a whole industry pushing cool lego pieces into the market like, say, a special wing used to build Star Wars spaceships. If you are just playing with the bucket of bricks, it’s fine to take the wing and stick it somewhere. But if you are building a helicopter, and start getting nervous because everybody talks about the new wing piece, because everybody seems to be using it, you may end up saying: yeah… well, you know… yes, I believe my helicopter could be using some of these wings. We’ll make it a winged helicopter, first one of its kind. Cool, right? No. Not cool. That’s stupid.

If you are still considering Big Data after a number of keynotes, then I bet you fall under some of the following:

a. You are still confused. Grab a technical friend of yours and ask him to give an elevator pitch. It should take you five minutes to figure out whether this piece can help you build a better helicopter.

b. You don’t know what you are building. Check this out because you may have to solve more fundamental issues before deciding what to do with this piece.

When we create, we cycle between vision and resources. One affects the other and vice-versa. But don’t get hooked on a particular piece just because everybody talks about it. There are many things to check, and so much happening now. You shouldn’t fear missing out a way to stick a Big Word in your business but missing out a key development happening on uncharted territories that may have a more fundamental impact on what you do.

With a long weekend ahead of us, I plan to consider Big Beer and see if I can make some use of it. Be sure to not miss that out too.