The trouble with Big Data and analysts (transcript)

James Lawther

It's been one of the most hyped words of the past couple of years, but is big data approaching the peak of its hype cycle? And what can companies do to get real value out of big data?

In this PEX Network interview, James Lawther, Head of Insight and Improvement at RSA, discusses common mistakes companies make when getting started with big data and the trouble with big data and analysts.

Editor’s note: this is a transcript of a podcast interview and has been edited for readability. To listen to the original podcast, click here.

PEX Network: Gartner is currently stating that we’re heading towards the peak of the hype cycle with big data. If their pattern holds true, that means that we’re going to be heading to what they call the trough of disillusionment in the next couple of years. Do you think that many companies overestimate what data can do for them and underestimate what it takes to make that vision a reality?

James Lawther: There’s nothing new about data being important to business. The only difference now is there’s more of it and the process has changed quite dramatically. But it’s still just data.

The question really is what is the bottleneck and, as people, what is our ability to understand that data and use it. This is what’s key.

Do I think it’s overestimated what data could do for us? No, not at all, it’s really important to our businesses and will continue to be so. Do I think it’s underestimated what it takes to make that vision a reality? Actually, yes.

PEX Network: Delving into that second part of the question a little bit more, what are some of the common mistakes that you see businesses make when they are getting started with data and analytics?

James Lawther: I think there are three mistakes and they’re really linked. The first mistake fundamentally is not being really clear about the problem you’re trying to fix. The minute you’re clear what the problem is you’re trying to fix you get a better end result. This is not just necessarily just for your data but for your business in totality.

The second thing you must do is focus on making data work for you. We can do anything we want to do but we can’t do everything. I think it’s really important that if you’re going to pursue a data strategy, you need to realize that.

The third thing, which rolls off the back of that, is if you’re going to focus on that type of strategy, you really need to invest in people and you need to invest in the infrastructure to support what you’re trying to do.

It is those three things: are you clear? are you going to focus? and are you doing your best? If you are not doing those three things, then you’re really just giving the whole thing lip service.

PEX Network: There’s that well-known saying: "lies, damned lies and statistics." How can you really trust what the data is telling you? For instance, can’t a data analyst actually make the numbers say just about anything if they try hard enough?

James Lawther: There’s another phrase: data doesn’t lie. I think the point is that it’s not about the data; it’s about the people who are using it.

My dad studied history at university and I’ve got a degree in science. I remember having a conversation him when I was in my early 20s and I told him he’d wasted his time studying history. Why hadn’t he studied a proper technological science, something that you could apply? He just looked at me fairly disparagingly and said, well, the thing with history is "people do what people do."

That’s really the point. If there is a political gain to be made out of using the data to your advantage somebody’s going to start massaging the figures. So, yes, don’t trust everything that you read, particularly if it comes from politicians as it regards data!

PEX Network: I think that’s probably good advice both for business and life in general! Now you’re actually going to be presenting something called "The Problem with Big Data and Analysts" at our upcoming Big Data and Analytics for Financial Services Conference in London this July. Without giving it all away, what will you be looking at in that presentation?

James Lawther: I think analysis is a little bit like witchcraft. You can do some amazing things and people look at you agog when they see what you’re capable of doing. But the problem with witchcraft is you have to be really careful that you don’t get burnt at the stake. So that’s what my presentation will be about and I’m not going to tell you any more than that….

PEX Network: Very intriguing! Final question: what are your top tips for data analysts on both improving their bad rep - as witches perhaps - and using their insight to really help make their businesses work better?

Jame Lawther: There are four things. I’ve touched on one already: be really clear what the problem is that you’re trying to fix. This is not about fishing trips; it’s about understanding what the problem is you’re trying to fix, and focussing on that.

The second one is be really clear in your presentation. Simplicity is always best; be really clear about what you’re presenting.

The third thing is get to the point and tell a nice clear story.

The final thing is back up all your data and analysis. Does this data and analysis really tell you what you think’s going on? Does it make sense? And if not, why not? Those would be my four tips.