Big Data, Big Opportunities: Interview with Andy Jones, Head of Solutions at Software AG

Andy Jones

Hearing alot about big data but not convinced that it will have much of an impact on process improvement?

Big Data is a wave that will eventually flow across all organizations in different ways, predicts Andy Jones, Head of Solutions at Software AG. At the moment organizations are starting experiment with big data especially in industries like financial services and retail, he says, and the key will be to ensure that the focus is on generating real value at every stage of the process.

In this PEX Network interview, Andy Jones discusses some of the key challenges with big data, identifies the key industries where big data is currently having an impact, discusses the impact of big data on process improvement and process design, and elaborates on the differences between Business Intelligence and Big Data.

The following interview is an edited transcript of a video interview with Andy Jones: How big data is Reshaping Process Improvement.

PEX Network: In which industries do you think big data holds the greatest potential?

The industries where we’re seeing greatest uptake at the moment are organizations with very high transaction rates - financial services, banking, for example - organizations with very complicated infrastructures like utility companies, energy and gas companies, and those kinds of organizations have already got large amounts of data flooding through their systems.

In many cases, historically, data has just been thrown away or used for its immediate purpose and then discarded. What we’re seeing now with big data is that organizations are asking what else can be obtained from that information.

Additionally, in organizations that deal with very large customer bases - now interacting through social media, websites and so forth - there is much information about how the customers are behaving that organizations can now store and then act upon. Even where organizations don’t have a large customer or consumer bases, there is a good amount of data which comes just from their employees.

So when we think about unstructured data such as email and so forth, as organizations become more collaborative we’ll start to se e them use that information as well internally. I think big data will be a wave that moves across all industries and organizations over the course of time.

PEX Network: Could you elaborate on why businesses and organizations are starting to get interested in big data?

People expect that there’s more information available than was previously being used and I think utilities is a good example. An organization such as an electricity company has hundreds of devices which manage the network and in the past they would maintain those just on a basic schedule so they would say such and such device has to be attended every six months by a trained technician. By using data which flows from that device they may see that actually its condition does not yet require maintenance so the number of monthly visits could be reduced and the lifespan of the article perhaps could be extended.

It’s the same way with your car: your car will now tell you when you need servicing, whereas previously you just took it in on a schedule. By using the information that’s available to them there is an immediate business case and that kind of sparks the idea that looking at all the information we have there’s other advantages we can find. So for many organizations it’s a journey of discovery. I think one of the key points for organizations will be to make sure they are finding value at each step.

PEX Network: Traditionally big data has been confined to the I.T. department. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because I.T. infrastructure has come under strain. Things like faster payment processing for banks, the volume of payments that they now process has grown so quickly that the systems that they had before can no longer cope. The big data problem comes into their day-to-day business and they need to find a solution. As they find solutions it starts to open up other opportunities for business. First, it’s a problem that I.T. has to solve but then new ideas will come up once you’ve got those solutions in place.

PEX Network: Are there signs that departments outside of I.T. are starting to get interested?

Yes. Marketing is obviously the key one. Understanding the sentiment of your customers is such a valuable thing for marketing and that’s where we’re seeing a lot of demand coming from: customer personalization and customer direction piece is where organizations think that there’s real competitive advantage to be had.

PEX Network: What is really driving that movement outside of the I.T. function?

People are being surprised by things that are happening in social media. I remember one of our consumer brand customers set up an online event and they had two million visitors to that event: even they were surprised! But it shows the power both of contacting customers in that way and also the way that customers will behave as a group. The whole idea that any negative opinion of your organization will now spread very quickly is quite concerning to certain organizations. Getting in touch with that media, getting in touch with those people becomes our critical objective. Being able to manage the volume of data that flows from that is, therefore, one of the priorities for success.

PEX Network: In which ways is big data applicable to people who work in the process improvement world?

There are a few things here. Back to my utilities example, that idea of condition-based maintenance is clearly a major change to the processes around process management. But in other cases a lot of process detail is around the availability of information or the absence of information to the folks who have to operate the process. Sometimes being able to access big data means that people will make different decisions and better decisions and therefore change the overall performance and structure of the process that they work with.

It means that process professionals looking to design or improve process can think about making [different types of] information available because now some of the technologies in big data make that possible. For instance, if you’re trying to make a customer contact in a call centre more interactive, you no longer have to feel constrained that gathering information about customer history will take too long. Now you can make that data available pretty much instantly so the conversation goes as well as it possibly can. It is that kind of opportunity where people have previously felt constrained by their IT infrastructure and some of the technologies now remove those constraints.

PEX Network: Why do you think that process professionals should be starting to think about big data?

It has been a missed opportunity in the past because it has either fallen into the "too hard" column or people aren’t even aware that such information can be made available to them. There are now very cost effective ways of processing these amounts of data, which means that sometimes the business case pretty much speaks for itself. In the past large data warehouse initiatives, MI and data analysis programs have been quite costly and complicated and slow to roll out. What we’re seeing people do now is effectively take some of these technologies and solve point problems in projects pretty quickly and easily and then start to use that as a technique across a range of projects and opportunities. It becomes part of a kick for how an organization can change its performance.

PEX Network: How is big data different from business intelligence (BI)?

The thing that really makes the difference for me - and the two are closely related - Big data comes in two types really. The first type is big data when it is sitting still - at rest, being stored - and that is very close to the BI world. The volume of data presents new challenges for the BI community but fundamentally it’s the same problem on a bigger scale. The second type is interacting with that data as it moves – e.g. as the customer is interacting on your website, or as the infrastructure in your organization is signalling its status to you - and that’s the real difference. Connecting information in motion to processes as they execute gives the opportunity to change the outcome of that process and that’s why people are finding this stuff exciting.

PEX Network: Is anyone doing big data well yet?

People are starting out on strategies; I would say that people are taking different aspects of the big data problem and dealing with it very well. Some technology companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are taking on the huge data volume problem and managing that and providing service to their customers. Others are using big data to change their interaction with their own customers by making information more available, by having more compelling experiences on their web site. I don’t think anybody yet has exploited it yet to its extreme. One of the things we find is that as people adopt the technology, they get a taste for it pretty quickly because projects are very simple and with very little risk. No one’s "finished" with big data yet but some people are making a really good start.

PEX Network: What would you say is one of the first steps for people getting started with this notion of marrying process with big data?

The first step is thinking about what you don’t know. Process professionals look at the way workers interact with the process and the information they have to have. What could you do if you had perfect vision of everything that was happening inside and outside your organization? Reconsider where information is actually available and how it can be presented to the appropriate person at the appropriate time. As I say, I think it is a question of realizing that constraints that were in place before can now be removed and that gives good opportunities.