Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Big Data - and what we'll do with it

The Gartner Hype Cycle
Big Data: it is all just hype until the clouds clear, business users can use it, and customers are served better because of it. When Big Data truly arrives as some products in the enterprise, business decisions will start to be based more on information and insight and less on gut feel (by the highest paid person who trumps everybody else). While we are waiting for the final crescendo of hype, I’d like to consider what we are going to do with all that new information.

Most rational people quietly accept that Big Data is mostly hype right now. Everybody is trying to stake a claim to their chunk of it and the chatter on social channels as marketers try to nurture the term into a real market is a source of big data in itself. The concept only starts being real as forward thinking CIOs focus less on the mundane IT networks and PCs and more on helping the business extract value from all the data they have access to using the tools borne of the hype. That is Big Data - the real use of analyzed data to help make business decisions, not just the technology hype about who has the best Hadoop or in memory database. Don’t know what these terms mean? You are a member of 99.999% of the business population, AKA normal people. Because you shouldn't have to know.

We are still in the early phase of the technology cycle for Big Data. The IBMs, SAPs and HPs of the world are still appealing to very early adopters who have money to burn on acronymic technologies that have yet to be formed into meaningful products with advertising friendly names. By 'meaningful', I want to imply that only a small team of consultants are required to install them and make them do something that regular business users and executives can make use of.

Currently most of the focus of the hype and actual product releases seems to be on the storage, manipulation, analysis and visualization of the data. I've seen little meaningful discussion about what I consider key problems:

  • making information actionable
  • taking business decisions from a concept through actual change
  • providing communication and business records without generating a ton of irrelevant email and wasted report writing along the way

This is where business process management (BPM), customer relationship management (CRM), and case management tools come into play. But not as the tech vendors might have you believe. The value is not purely from the extra data they pump into the system from day-to-day management of customer interactions and employee collaboration.

Of course, having a good insight into your customers and business activities is great. Being able to manage the flood of required decisions coming from future Big Data analysis is equally important. How do you actively handle all the business information coming out of the business? Losing it in email is not the answer. Never actually following up with your newly revealed best customers is just a waste.

Handling the flood of new work emanating from real Big Data analysis should not be yet another chore. This is going to be valuable stuff we never had access to before. Managing the work actively through flexible processes, using tools designed to help people follow up on decisions that need to be made, this is a key component of Big Data. Its not currently the sexy part (for geeks at least). But it is the final component that ensures that all the investment in technology, analysis and experience is not just lost into meaningless email conversations that go nowhere.

Speaking of conversations going nowhere... follow me @consected on Twitter

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Automation, BPM, ethics and competition. Or serving customers better.

A recent discussion on the ebizQ Business Process Management forum asks: “what percentage of processes should be automated?”. In any given company, how many of those routine processes that get work done should be taken largely out of the hands of employees and made into software, or painstaking converted into automated manufacturing production lines? An interesting response came back came back from Emiel Kelly on the ethical implications of full automation. What happens to all the human-beings that previously had jobs and have now been phased out? This is not new news, but it did touch a nerve for me, as I was just reading George Orwell’s 1984, filling the huge gaps in my school history classes with some time skim-reading Wikipedia about Marx, and thinking how to avoid the “race to the bottom” in the world of software development as the low-cost offshore talent pool continually grows.

So, is there an ethical issue to automating business processes that can be fairly automated? The question is perhaps, “who benefits from business processes being automated?”. Should an organization be holding back improving its products and services, and providing a better customer experience because it is afraid of the moral implications of significant organizational changes? Or is it just hoping to cut costs to be more profitable and serve shareholders with larger dividends? Really the ethics of a corporation are guided by its own policies and mission statement, within the very loose boundaries of the law. If corporate governance suggests “employees first” then it can have an ethical issue with large scale automation.

The reality of the situation is that automation of processes and using BPM to reduce waste and improve efficiency are not big evil entities, out to strip every experienced employee of his or her pride. If BPM doesn’t improve the way a business performs and serves its customers, competitors in the marketplace will certainly ensure that hard working people in an 'overly' ethical company lose their jobs. Or those competitors will force that company into a position where business process outsourcing or offshore manufacturing become the only option. From the standpoint of supporting the local population with employment, outsourcing is no better when it comes to your complex ethical quandary.

Companies have to decide for themselves the right balance between:
  • responsibility to their local labor-forces as potential employers of people
  • responsibility to existing employees providing value to the company
  • responsibility to shareholders to ensure continued investment to operate and improve
  • responsibility to customers to meet obligations and attract new customers.

At the end of the day, the majority of people want a secure job for a secure wage. Free-market economics, the social safety net, government (big or small) and technology all have a part to play in meeting the needs of the local population. There is no easy answer. But you can guarantee that by avoiding automation and organizational change for fear of facing such ethical issues, a more ruthless competitor will walk in and still serve what were previously your customers better than you can. A company remains in no position to employ people when it has no customers.

Automation and BPM can help a company advance to serve customers better, at a lower cost. This subsequently ensures the ability to survive, thrive, innovate and subsequently employ a greater number of local people.

Chat with @consected on Twitter if you think I'm missing the point. 

A post from the Improving It blog
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