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How Data Analytics Helps Small Businesses Discover New Insights

SMBs and nonprofits mine data to improve their businesses and missions.

The SETI Institute’s mission requires prospecting through a torrent of data daily in hopes of finding a tiny nugget of information suggesting the presence of advanced technological life in the universe beyond Earth.

For that, SETI scien­tists have a new tool: The institute has partnered with IBM to develop an Apache Spark cluster computing framework that accelerates data analysis to speeds up to 100 times faster than technologies currently available.

“The daily output of data from our radio telescope is 54 terabytes,” says Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the Mountain View, Calif., nonprofit. “Spark tools allow us to go through our archive with more advanced algorithms to determine if there’s something more subtle that our real-time fast-Fourier transform analysis cannot detect — content, structure or pattern that doesn’t seem to be natural in its origin.”

Small Businesses Start Thinking Analytically

Not many small or medium-sized businesses or nonprofits need the data analytics firepower that SETI does, but most would benefit from the increased efficiency and productivity data analytics tools offer, says Chris Chute, who recently left his position as vice president of the SMB practice at IDC to lead customer insights at SAP.

Adoption of analytics tools, however, lags behind their promise, because SMB tech staffs may not be familiar with the technologies or require training to use them effectively.

“For every implementation, there are three organizations that have never considered using analytics or that have a dusty work­station in the corner with one business intelligence tool that no one remembers how to use or why they bought it,” Chute says.

The most common use of data analytics in midsized companies is monitoring IT functions, with some inroads in finance and operations, Chute says. Most deployments are at the department level rather than companywide, he adds.

IDC predicts more widespread use of analytic applications as they increasingly become available from the cloud. Software manufacturers are also starting to present a more sophisticated value proposition for data analytics to SMBs, stressing the potential of these tools in areas such as workforce, management and sales force analytics, Chute says.

“Data analytics have to be part of the culture for organizations to get full value from the technologies,” he says. “You can take it as far as you want to go into the data you gather as a company, but right now SMBs are not generally taking it very far yet.”

A Universe of Data to Analyze

Before they had access to Spark tools, SETI Institute scientists focused on data flowing from its 42-dish Allen Telescope Array that real-time analysis identified as signals not likely to be found in nature, Diamond says. Those signals triggered an arduous process involving as many as six analytic passes over the data.

Using Spark, the institute can now get a detailed analysis of those flagged signals quickly. Equally as important, the speed of the advanced analytics lets SETI take a closer look at its massive archive of saved data.

“For all we know, we have the evidence of life beyond Earth and haven’t seen it yet,” Diamond says. “Spark has the ability to find things in the data that we didn’t even know we were looking for.”

The work between IBM and the institute is mutually beneficial. IBM gets a chance to “exercise” and develop its algorithms in the “gymnasium” of SETI’s vast archive, Diamond says.

“They can put their data analytics through their paces in our massive data sets,” he says. “The process is helping to develop the tools in the Spark platform and giving us unprecedented insight into the data gathered over the years.”

Analytics Monitor Both Networks and Data 

CarLotz, a vehicle consignment company based in Richmond, Va., may deploy data analysis on a smaller scale than SETI, but the insights uncovered are key to its operations, says Chief Technology Officer Dan Valerian.

The CarLotz IT staff uses the analytics capabilities built into Cisco Meraki to monitor network and data center functions. For insights into vehicle and customer data, the company has implemented Microsoft Dynamics CRM with Power BI, having chosen the platform for its extensibility and flexibility.

“We look at just about everything about our business through Dynamics CRM,” Valerian says. “We’ve built custom consignment management, inventory management and dealer management systems on top of the Dynamics platform. We can look at all our vehicles and customer visits — really anything we need to know. And everyone from our marketing department chief to our business managers can slice and dice the data to see what they need to know.”

Using Data to Power a Business 

The management of CarLotz, which has six locations in North Carolina and Virginia, is committed to running a data-driven business. The company uses analytics reporting to make inventory and staffing decisions, monitor sales and finance indicators, and even to help customers price vehicles in the context of market information.

Choosing analytics tools that fit the organization’s needs — or can be customized for a specific purpose — is crucial, as is having staff with the skills to manage the technology, Valerian says.

“There are no software packages out there with data analytics for vehicle consignment businesses or a lot of other SMBs,” he says. “The key is to know your business and organization well enough to understand what you want to analyze before you compare tools and platforms and buy one.”

Getting Granular with Your Data 

Renodis began life in 2002 as a telecommunications agent. But over time, the St. Paul, Minn., company morphed into a managed services provider, offering data, voice and mobility solutions. The company outgrew its custom-built analytics platform, says Technology Manager Mike Plekkenpol. To keep up with its changing requirements, Renodis turned to Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online.

“The old solution was difficult to maintain and didn’t give us the extensibility and longevity we needed,” Plekkenpol says. “Dynamics CRM Online solves most of the maintenance problems and has robust analytics built in, and it enables us to do customized reporting for our customers.”

The company was particularly interested in Power BI, he says, because it tightly integrates with the platform and lets Renodis manipulate “a lot of data in many ways.”

The company’s customers are mostly midsized businesses. Renodis uses Dynamics CRM to provide traditional telecom expense management with added analytics, granular time and resource pool consumption monitoring, and asset and contract management, Plekkenpol says.

Get Help to Manage Data Tools 

“We can aggregate so much of our customers’ telecom data and then analyze it to give them recommendations on how we can alter their contracts to give them the best return and performance on their telecom budget,” he says.

SMBs looking for analytic platforms and tools should choose technologies that offer partner and support networks to provide help and expertise not available in-house, advises Plekkenpol. And they should think beyond current needs to what their businesses may require in the future.

“Always think about what you can do with it down the road,” he says. “Your analytics have to grow with your company.”

Seth Shostak (SETI); portrait photography by John Lee
May 19 2017

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