Feb 16 2015

Working with Big Data Means CIOs Must Embrace Uncertainty

IT leaders should heed these words of wisdom from this NASA analytics expert.

When it comes to building up hope and promise in IT these days, Big Data is surpassed only by the equally buzzy term “cloud.” The power of storing, tracking, synthesizing and, most importantly, analyzing data at micro and macro levels in ways previously not possible means that transformational opportunities in business await us.

But the Minority Report-style future won’t happen overnight in your organization, and Big Data can’t be the go-to answer for all corporate IT woes. Amy Braverman, principal statistician at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, sat down with The Wall Street Journal earlier this month to discuss why she believes it’s important for CIOs and IT leaders to set realistic expectations about the role of Big Data in their companies.

“Any time you compute with data you collected, you are calculating sample statistics.” she said. “It’s important to acknowledge there is uncertainty in the results.”

As someone tasked with literally exploring the unknown — outer space — you can definitely consider Braverman an expert in charting untested waters.

But accounting for this uncertainty doesn’t mean CIOs should launch Big Data projects without accounting for ROI.

For example, when the Arizona Diamondbacks rolled out its data analytics solution, which BizTech covered last year, the team knew what it was measuring against: increased sales and renewable rates.

“The better we can understand our customers, the more successful we will be fitting them with the best product, which in this case would be the best ticket package that they can enjoy and renew for years to come,” said Kenny Farrell, the Diamondbacks senior director of business strategy and operations.

CIOs should set goals upfront, but be responsive if data shift things in a different direction and the goals need to be adjusted. There’s real organizational risk to operating a Big Data project without a defined purpose, Braverman said.

“The peril is you spend time and don’t get a thing out of it,” she said. “The other peril is you spend a long time and get the wrong thing out of it.”