Charting Your Big Data Journey

Slide1In the first post in this series, I examined the underlying trends driving the buzz around big data and its relevance for SMBs. In the second, I discussed how three IBM business partners (FYI Solutions, LPA Systems, Inc. and Waypoint Consulting) are helping SMBs take a pragmatic approach to successfully apply analytics and big data solutions to solve business problems.

In this third and final post, I’ll talk about how to determine business readiness for big data solutions, and considerations to keep in mind as you help your business move ahead in this area.

Big Data Readiness

Today, even small companies are generating and accumulating staggering amounts of data. The question is, can you turn this data into reliable, accessible and actionable information that you can apply to solve business problems and make better decisions?

Many SMBs rely on Microsoft Excel to generate information and reports. If you’re in this category, you can get ahead simply by taking advantage of analytics tools built into the financials, HR, CRM and other core systems that you use. Taking it a bit further, combining Google Analytics data from your website with CRM data can offer you fresh insights about who’s coming to your website, from where, and what they’re doing when they get there.

But as business complexity grows, data and reports are spread across more databases, spreadsheets and applications, and stored on servers, personal computers, mobile devices and in the cloud grows as well. Using disparate data sources and tools to answer key questions such as “what products can I price at a premium” and “what are the best ways to increase repeat sales?” becomes difficult, time-consuming and burdened with inconsistencies.

“When customers approach us, the top reason is because they don’t trust their data and reports. Too time-consuming always comes up as well. They are also struggling to get an enterprise-wide view of their data,” according to Joe Rodriguez, Software Practice Leader, FYI Solutions.

If you answer yes to the questions in Figure 1, your business probably needs to integrate key data sources into a central repository. As Brendan McGuire, Managing Partner, Waypoint Consulting puts it, “You need to pull data from the cloud and on-premise applications into an integrated, rationalized data store. You can do this on your own systems, or you can do it in the cloud in a subscription model.”

Figure 1: Big Data Readiness–Key Questions to Ask

Slide1With a core foundation of common, trustworthy and accessible data in place, you’ll be able to get deeper insights into operations and customer behaviors and preferences. Companies typically start out with “descriptive” business intelligence (BI) tools to dig in and get more visibility into key metrics such as those noted in Figure 1, and make better decisions. For instance, if you’re a retailer, these tools can provide analysis to pinpoint optimal locations for new stores, more accurately forecast customer demand, minimize inventory or negotiate better pricing from suppliers.

Moving Up the Curve

Until recently, having solid analytics capabilities for internal, structured data was enough to give many businesses an edge. But, with more data and different kinds of data pouring in from more places, companies are looking for new ways to help them access, analyze and use data to gain market and competitive advantages.

In broad-brush strokes, big data helps do this in two ways. First, big data technologies crunch through both structured and unstructured data exponentially faster than was ever possible before. Examples of technologies that enable this super-charged data crunching power include hardware with increased memory and parallel processing capabilities, and Hadoop and MapReduce, which harness the power of multiple, distribute computers for problem solving.

Using this kind of technology, you can run analyses that used to take days or weeks in minutes. This make it possible to analyze data that you may have collected for years, but were never able to analyze before, or to weave new, external data sources into your analysis.

In addition, new kinds of analytics tools and solutions make it easier to explore data in more accessible, actionable ways, including:

  • Mobile business intelligence. Nowadays decision-making is as likely to happen in an airport or at a customer site as in headquarters. Mobile solutions let users see, share, report, and analyze data on smartphones and tablets. They take advantage of native, user-friendly mobile interfaces, such as touch screens, and give users the ability to make smarter, faster decisions regardless of location.
  • Visualization. You may be able to look at a hundred of rows of data and make sense of it, but can you look at thousands of rows and figurer out what’s going on? Visualization solutions help people to see what’s happening across hundreds of thousands of data points quickly and easily.
  • Sentiment analysis. Social media and digital sites have given customers and potential customers a much bigger and louder voice. Sure, you can easily tell how many followers or fans you have, but do you really know what it means to your business? Sentiment analysis identifies the user attitudes towards a brand, product or event by using variables such as context, tone and emotion.
  • Predictive analytics. Using mathematical algorithms, predictive analytics helps you to spot what’s likely to happen next. With predictive tools, you can examine large amounts of historical data (internal and external, structured and unstructured) to identify hidden patterns to alert you to future trends and stay ahead of the market.
  • Prescriptive analytics take things a step further, actually guiding you to a course of action, via options for what you should do next. Prescriptive analytics solutions can fine-tune themselves as they take in new data to continually improve your decision alternatives.

Choosing Your Big Data Path

Where you go next depends on where you are today, and your business goals, as discussed in Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs. Often, explains Brendan McGuire, “the greatest opportunity is to make data more consumable…making it easier for the business person to have conversations with the data, whether its structured or unstructured, through better mobile solutions, or visualization.”

Meanwhile, LPA Systems is helping hotel chains use forecasting and planning solutions to get a better idea of expected occupancy rates based on historical transactional data mixed with external information about upcoming events and other factors to optimize pricing and marketing initiatives. As Jesse McNulty explains, “Now they can better assess if they’re going to be overbooked on a weekday in July, and charge more, or if they’re going to have occupancy issues, and need to do a promotion”.

Although prescriptive analytics is still further out on the horizon for most companies, Joe Rodriguez sees customer interest in this area growing. “Just like your GPS provides you with alternate routes, tells you where to go, and what turns to make in your car, prescriptive analytics can be like a crystal ball to help predict outcomes and improve decision-making for the business.”


As revealed in the IBM Institute for Business Value and Said Business School, University of Oxford, three out of five midmarket respondents report that analytics, information and big data solutions “create a competitive advantage in their industry,” representing a 66% increase since 2010. Given the rapid rate and pace of change in business and technology, this gap will widen.

While turning information into insights isn’t easy, the good news is that vendors are increasingly recognizing that big data isn’t only for big businesses. Whether you are just starting to think about the relevance of big data for you business, or you have some of the basics in place, more vendors, including IBM, are focusing on SMB customers. Not only are they building more solutions tailored to SMB requirements, they are also developing educational materials to help you learn how more about applying big data solutions to real world business problems. As important, they are growing and training their business partners to help you get up the learning curve, implement solutions and optimize the value you gain from them.

So do your homework. Assess your company’s key challenges, we’re you’re at today, and were you want to go. Talk to colleagues and business advisors you trust. Start developing a strategy to get the wisdom you need to grow your business and stay ahead of the competition.

This is the final post in this blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. The first post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs? parses through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, and what is important and relevant for SMBs. The second, Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs looks at how IBM business partners are helping SMBs take practical steps to put big data to work for their businesses.

Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs

info you need photoIn my previous post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?, I looked at the underlying trends driving the buzz around big data, and why big data is relevant for SMBs. I also discussed why “big” is a relative term–relative to the amount of information that your organization needs to sift through to find the insights you need, when you need them, and the widening performance gap between businesses that can find the right needles in the data haystack, and those that can’t.

But, charting the course from information overload to actionable business insights isn’t easy, especially for resource-constrained SMBs. In this post, I’ll draw on my conversations with three IBM business partners to discuss what they are seeing, and how they are helping SMB analytics novices chart a course to a successful big data landing. They include:

  • FYI Solutions is an IT consultancy based in Parisppany, NJ. FYI specializes in business analytics solutions for financial services, insurance, life sciences, media & publishing, and automotive companies. In business for 29 years, FYI Solutions takes pride in creating lasting value through lasting relationships–the average FYI Solutions client relationship is 15 years.
  • LPA Systems, Inc. is a business analytics and business intelligence company with deep roots in the healthcare, hospitality, finance and insurance industries. Founded in 2001, LPA’s main office is in Rochester, New York, with additional offices in Houston, Dallas and Cleveland.
  • Waypoint Consulting is a business analytics and financial performance management consultancy based in Newton Square, PA and a 2012 Philly 100 company. Waypoint combines proprietary methodologies, partner products and certified consultants to help customers deliver analytic solutions. Waypoint’s Project Management process provides clients with full transparency into a project while ensuring solutions are delivered on time and under budget.

Houston (or Parsippany, Rochester, Newtown Square), We Have A Problem

SMBs rarely seek out “big data” solutions. Instead, they’re looking to solve a business problem. They may need guidance to understand what data they need to solve the problem, where the data is that they need to use, and how to capture and use the data to address challenges and meet business goals.

Trying to solve business problems is nothing new. What’s changed is that they are dealing with more data, located in more places, and created in different formats. The other big thing that’s changed is that they need to get information and insights faster.

As Joe Rodriguez, Software Practice Leader, FYI Solutions states, “They can be coming at it from different angles. They may have delivery people in the field telling them that it’s too slow to do queries to check on inventory–they are waiting too long and losing money. Or their information is stuck in different silos, and it’s a time-consuming, laborious process to try to pull it into an enterprise wide view.” Or as Brendan McGuire, Managing Partner, WayPoint Consulting puts it, “With more external and internal data available, companies can no longer effectively leverage and use the data with the tools they’ve been using.”

The Right Stuff for Successful Outcomes

Most SMBs that come to these solution providers are just getting started down the analytics path. They come in frustrated with ever-more complicated Excel spreadsheets and pivot tables that take too much energy to create and update, and that propagate too many errors to trust.

Some are also coming from industries, such as healthcare, that have undergone a rapid transition to digital records due to new regulatory requirements. All of a sudden, they are swamped with data.

Few have in-house experts that are well-versed in analytic best practices and approaches, and many don’t even have business analysts. As Joe Rodriguez puts it, “We often have a brand new customer who will come to us because they have a problem to tackle. They may have limited knowledge about analytics, and need us to help them understand it and how it can help them.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So what does it take for these novices to successfully navigate up the curve? The solution providers I spoke with shared common views on the essentials for good outcomes.

  1. Start with smarter decision-making, not tools. Start with a close examination of the business drivers for a more advanced analytics approach–not with the tools. As Brendan McGuire noted, “The first and most important part of the conversation is working with the client to understand what processes do they have and what decisions do they need to make, and how can better data insights support this? Or as Barbara Schiffman, Director of Technology Solutions, FYI Solutions says, “We don’t start out by talking about the tools. In fact, the tools are incidental. We start with what business problems are you experiencing? Where do you really want to be instead of where you are today?”
  2. Get on the right entrance ramp. As mentioned above, many SMBs are just getting started up the analytics curve. With so many bright and shiny objects under the big data umbrella, it can be tempting to bite off more than you can chew. Jesse McNulty, Account Manager, LPA Systems summed it up this way: Most SMBs are just getting started and have enough to do with getting good basic functional reporting in place. They can get enormous benefits just from getting the foundation in place, then build on their analytics competency from there. But some are already farther along, and ready to move into location analytics, forecasting, predictive analytics or other more advanced things–like prescriptive analytics.” On the flip side, they may not have given much thought to mobile analytics right out the gate, but could benefit from it. According to Brendan McGuire, “Most SMBs don’t initially think about it. But once we end up talking about it, many of them realize that their executives and business users are using tablets and smartphones, and that mobile needs to be part of the plan upfront.”
  3. Create the right roadmap for your business. I know I just said to stay focused, but at the same time, you also need to create a roadmap that will serve your needs as things evolve in your business, the market and with the competition. As Barbara Schiffman advises, “You shouldn’t just put a tactical Band-Aid on the problem. You need enough detail to figure out the real problems, solve for those today, but also look ahead to the future, and the types of problems that could arise.” Keep in mind that this is your roadmap, for your business. Just as there are many different entry points, the roadmap for each business will be different. “At the end of the day, it’s all about what solution will deliver the best business ROI for your company,” notes Schiffman.
  4. Decode data requirements. Take time up front to think through what data your business needs to enable better decision-making. What data are you drawing on today for decision-making and business processes? Where is the data, and how can you make it more accurate and usable? What data are you missing that you need, and how can you get it? Once you have a clear picture of the key data sources you need to pull from, you can start to figure out which tools you’ll need for the job. If you’re like many SMBs, you probably have data in different “silos”, such as an internal financials application and a cloud-based HR or CRM solution. Integrating these data sources is likely an investment you’ll need to make. As Brendan McGuire advises, “Data silos are inconsistent, expensive to support, cause errors. When you have an integrated data store, and you use that for analytics, it doesn’t impact your transactional systems. You use that to do any level of reporting, build dashboards, create mobile interfaces.”
  5. Evaluate industry-specific solutions. While horizontal solutions may fit the bill in some cases, tailor-made, industry-specific solutions and a solution provider with expertise in your industry can often save time, money and a lot of aggravation. As Jesse McNulty explained, “There is tremendous change occurring in the healthcare industry as payment models shift from fee-for-service to pay-for-performance or full risk. There are many nuances, for instance, to areas such as managing chronic disease populations, and healthcare organizations have very specific metrics that they need to monitor to improve business performance against them.” Having a pre-configured solution that integrates the internal and external data, structured and unstructured, into one location, and addresses specific healthcare needs with healthcare terminology and business practices helps save clients time and money. According to McNulty, “This enables us to get a client’s electronic medical records (EMR) system connected to and running on our Chronic Disease Management analytics in as little as two weeks.”
  6. Find a partner that provides comprehensive services. Because most SMBs will take an incremental approach, it’s important to seek out comprehensive services in this rapidly evolving area. Look for solution providers that offer consulting, and implementation and support services, and demonstrate a deep commitment to establishing ongoing relationships with their customers. However, since no one provider is ever likely to be able to do it all, in this volatile space, selecting a vendor that’s part of a strong ecosystem is also important. Being part of a bigger ecosystem gives solution providers the knowledge and training they need to stay ahead of the big data learning curve, and improve the offerings and services they provide to you.


As all investment literature warns, past performance in not a guarantee of future success. Just ask Blockbuster, which was blindsided by consumers’ shifting preferences for renting movies; RIM BlackBerry, which underestimated how much the bring your own device (BYOD) trend would impact its smartphone sales to businesses; or Energizer, which missed the boat on how fast the sales of single-use, disposable batteries was dropping.

For most SMBs, being able to mine untapped data for business benefits is still at the aspirational stage. But now is the time to seriously consider what impact big data and analytics will have for your business, your customers and your industry. Think about trends you see taking shape–and even about the ones that you can now only imagine. What information and insights would help you capitalize on these trends? Likewise, what information are you missing that puts the business at risk?

Clearly, the perfect storm is taking shape as data volume, variety and velocity continue to soar ahead, almost guaranteeing that the businesses that can harness it to their advantage will benefit, and those that don’t will be blindsided.

This is the second of a three-part blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. The first post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?, parses through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, and what is important and relevant for SMBs. In my next and final post in this series, I’ll talk about ways that you can get the conversation going and the questions you need to ask to help your business move ahead.

VSBs Use Mobile Payments Solutions to Get Ahead

SMBs are taking to mobile solutions like ducks take to water, as revealed in SMB Group’s 2013 SMB Mobile Solutions Study, and as I discussed in 2013 SMB Mobile Attitudes and Challenges. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of any other technology area that has enjoyed such a meteoric rise.

In reviewing the results, one of the things that really popped out is that even very small businesses (VSBs, with 1 to 19 employees) are adopting mobile solutions at a fast and furious clip. Consider that overall, 91% of all SMBs use mobile devices and services in their businesses, compared to 89% of all VSBs. Meanwhile, 67% of all SMBs agree or strongly agree that “mobile solutions are now critical for our business,” compared with 50% of all VSBs.

As shown on Figure 1, VSB adoption of employee, or internal, mobile apps has grown significantly since 2012.

Figure 1: Number of Mobile Apps Very Small Business (VSB) Employees Use Regularly Slide1

One of the areas that we’ve seen the biggest jump is in mobile payments, which is up from 18.5% in 2012 to 23% in 2013, as shown on Figure 2. More VSBs are outfitting their employees to accept mobile payments with solutions including Intuit GoPayment, Square, PayPal Here and Sage Mobile Payments.

Figure 2: Very Small Business (VSB) Use and Plans for Mobile Payments Solutions


These VSBs see mobile payments as a key means to helping them meet their top business goals–growing revenues, attracting new customers, and improving cash flow. For instance, customers that are short on cash can buy–or buy more–from vendors at farmers or fleas markets who are armed with mobile payments devices. Plus, they’re so simple even kids can use them. Case in point is that 32 Girl Scout Councils are using Sage Mobile Payments as an option for cookie sales.  Mobile payments can also help cash flow, helping to avoid bounced checks. And, with PayPal Here, vendors get paid instantaneously.

We also found that many VSBs are not only using mobile payments devices while they’re out of the office or store, but also when they’re in it. The For instance, I spoke with one woman who runs a yoga studio who processes all of her customer payments through Intuit GoPayment on her iPhone. She doesn’t need to invest in a point-of-sale system, and payments are automatically integrated back to her QuickBooks system, saving time and helping her reduce the errors that come with entering data twice.

Of course, the bottom line is revenues, and mobile payments solutions have proved out. Our research shows that VSBs that accept mobile payments are a whopping 87% more likely to expect their revenues to grow over the next year.

So, if you’re among the 52% of VSBs with no plans to use mobile payments solutions–think again! Mobile payments solutions can be a great and easy way to help you move your business forward.