With SXSW in full swing, there’s no better time to ask, if big data were a band, what band would it be? At Oracle, we asked a few experts this very question in an episode of The Bold Data Project, our web show about big data.
When we asked Mike Olson, Cloudera’s Chief Strategy Officer, he didn’t hesitate: “It would have to be The Beatles.” He also mentioned that Cloudera had four founders, coincidentally. Oh, and that he’s John Lennon. (Check it out. Olson is at about 2:25.)
But just in case the under-thirty technorati shrugged off the Beatles comparison (“The Beatles, Vampire Weekend, whatever.”), Olson gave his rationale. The Beatles were, “…long-lived, very diverse, [had a] great recording history. [They] changed music… The opportunity in front of big data companies, Cloudera in particular, is to change society, to change business.”
It’s this last bit, the potential to change society and business that’s the key. Every once in a while, something comes along that both reflects and alters how we see the world and what we value. Great bands have this kind of cultural relevance. And some technologies, like TV or mobile phones, have it too.
The datafication of everything – big data’s true name – has this power. The consumer side of datafication, on display in spectacular fashion at SXSW, is easy to see. New cultural touchstone technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have reinvented how people communicate with each other, the boundary between private and public life, and, consequently, opened avenues for rebellion far beyond rock n’ roll.
But the business side of cultural relevance often gets overlooked. Olson called this out in another part of our conversation. (Here, about 4:25.) He’s excited about data-driven solutions to big societal problems in areas like healthcare, energy, and water.
Here’s where the might of big companies can do right. Multinational firms are some of the most powerful entities in modern society. They have a huge effect on culture through the products and services they create, their marketing efforts, and the ways they interact with employees and partners. This last piece – the ways companies work with other firms through their supply and distribution networks is the focus of an emerging theme in rethinking capitalism – creating shared value.
Michael Porter, the world’s leading authority on competitive strategy, is shared value’s primary champion. In a Harvard Business Review article Porter made the argument that companies benefit when they consider the economic costs and benefits that accrue to other players in their extended value chains. This can include shippers reducing truck idle time to reduce emissions at transfer stations or coffee companies training 3rd-party growers in sustainable farming techniques. At first glance, this just sounds like sensible business – new practices that reduce costs or increase efficiency. And it is that; but not only that. Porter’s main point is that it makes economic sense for companies to invest in benefits that accrue to other parties. It’s the transfer station’s neighbors who enjoy reduced pollution. And it’s the farmers who increase their yield per acre.
This isn’t corporate altruism. The expectation is that cleaner air means happier neighbors means reduced future legal risk. More productive coffee growers means greater reinvestment in their businesses means higher quality beans at the same or lower price.
But here’s the trick – if you’re a shipper, how much should you invest in new trucks to hedge against legal action by neighborhood groups? To do better than an educated guess, you’ll need data – lots of data. Big data, in fact. Reducing the cost of producing and using information makes it possible to imagine new ways of doing business, including ways of doing business that might benefit more than just your company.
Reinventing the way companies work, for the benefit of their employees, their trading partners, and us, their customers, is the mother of all big data problems. Mike’s right – big data gives IT huge cultural relevance. And that’s why he’s the walrus.
by Paul Sonderegger, Big Data Strategist, Oracle