Big data: harnessing a game-changing asset, a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit

White paper sponsored and published by SAS

March 5, 2012 -- Big Data: Harnessing a Game-Changing Asset, a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, explores the impact of big data and how companies are currently handling it. The report is based on survey results from 586 executives from across industries and around the world. Additional features include in-depth interviews with executives at 12 leading corporations on their present data usage with analysis from industry experts at two top business universities.

According to the June 2011 survey, 1 percent of respondents reported no increase in the amount of data they collected throughout the previous year. The report summarizes the results of the survey, as well as providing case studies and expert opinion focusing on why some top organizations are able to successfully extract insight from "big data." It also discusses why many more struggle to put all of their valuable data to good use.

Learn about:

The characteristics that define both successful and immature data management strategies.

Why extracting value from big data remains elusive for many organizations.

The strong link between data management strategies and financial performance.

Dan Briody, "Big data: Harnessing a game-changing asset, September 2011, online at

Executive Summary

The era of big data is upon us. As ever-more data pour through the networks of organisations worldwide, the race is on to extract insight and value from this abundant resource. The opportunities are enormous, as are the challenges. But companies that master the emerging discipline of big data management can reap signifi cant rewards and separate themselves from their competitors. Indeed, research conducted by Eric Brynjolfsson, an economist at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows that companies that use “data-directed decision-making” (defined “not only by collecting data, but also by how it is used—or not—in making crucial decisions”) enjoy a 5-6% boost in productivity.

In June 2011 the Economist Intelligence Unit conducted a global survey of 586 senior executives, sponsored by SAS, to look at the state of big data, along with the organisational characteristics of companies that are adept at extracting value from data. It also explores the most challenging aspects of data management. The research findings are as follows: n There is a strong link between effective data management strategy and fi nancial performance.

Companies that use data most effectively—what we defi ne as strategic data managers in our taxonomy of big data users—stand out from the rest. Fifty-three percent of respondents in this group say their organisations achieve higher financial performance than their peers, compared with 36% overall. The survey shows that these companies recognise the signifi cance of data and attribute the responsibilities for data management strategy most consistently to the C-suite; 47% of survey respondents in this group report that it is set by either the CEO or another C-level business executive. These businesses understand the potential of big data and are already leveraging their data to their competitive advantage, applying them to strategy development, product direction, market development and operational efficiency.

Extracting value from big data remains elusive for many organisations. For most companies today, data are abundant and readily available, but not well used. Survey results confirm this. Nearly one in four survey respondents says the vast majority of its company’s data are untapped. Another 53% say they only use about half of their valuable data. Yet 73% say that data collection in their organisation has increased over the last year. These figures indicate that organisations are still learning how to manage big data.

Many companies struggle with the most basic aspects of data management, such as cleaning, verifying or reconciling data across the organisation. Nearly one-third of respondents admit their data governance practices are insufficient. Many struggle to deliver important data to the right people within an acceptable timeframe. And there is also a dearth of workforce skills required to sift through, analyse and develop insights from big data. Some experts believe that big data is not yet a boon to most businesses, and that there is an urgent need for more analytical capability. “Data will not answer questions by themselves,” says Eric Bradlow, co-director of the Wharton Business School Customer Analytics Initiative.

Companies that are furthest along the data management competency continuum—strategic data managers—provide a useful model for how organisations will need to evolve if they are to extract and utilise valuable data-driven insights. Strategic data managers use data to first identify specific measurements and data points that align closely with corporate strategic goals. They select the most appropriate data to make decisions, and put a high percentage of the data they collect to use. They are also more likely to assign a C-level executive to manage data strategy, and they continue to explore emerging sources of data for potential value.

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