Forget Big Data, the Value Is in 'Big Answers'

The CTO of Barack Obama's reelection campaign says we need to stop worrying about big data and turn our attention instead to the 'big answers' the data provides. EMC, which made big data news this week, is one tech company that plans to translate big answers into big customer wins.

Harper Reed, the CTO of President Barack Obama's reelection campaign, spoke at this week's impressive EMC Greenplum Pivotal HD announcement. Reed really put big data in perspective.

Big data isn't important, Reed says. People supplying the money for projects aren't looking for a solution to the big data problem. They want answers—and not just any answer, but a "big answer" that would allow them to advance their companies and their careers. It doesn't matter to them whether data is big, medium or tiny. They just want that critical answer to a question, and they want it yesterday.

While this last point played into the announcement of a massive increase in performance, reducing the analytics process from days to minutes, the more interesting part was taking the focus off the data and putting it on the result.

'Big Answer' Lessons From the 2012 Presidential Election

I previously wrote about the 2012 presidential election, since the two campaigns took very different approaches and got very different results, which I think speak to outsourcing. Mitt Romney outsourced his analytics to a number of expert analytics firms that didn't have much political knowledge.

In watching the election unfold, it appeared that these firms found the fastest path to revenue was to give the Republican campaign the answers it wanted—that Romney was winning—irrespective of the truth. This is why Republican analysts were so confident in their later-proven-wrong predictions that their man would win.

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Reed took a different approach, hiring a handpicked team to focus on the problem. As a result, the Democratic campaign was much more effective at not only seeing where the race would end up but, through effective micro targeting, in assuring a win. It was able to use the email addresses and social network IDs of Democratic candidates and their spouses to more effectively raise cash and to get the vote out.

In short, the Republicans used analytics to prove they were ahead, while the Obama campaign used analytics to assure it would win. The Republicans focused on the election date, while Reed focused on the achieving the desired result.

EMC Using Big Data to See Who's Unhappy With the Competition

This same strategy is playing out inside EMC. The storage vendor is using analytics for a number of reasons, the most interesting of which is keeping customers happy. EMC knows which customers are loyal, which customers are unhappy and which customers are trapped.

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It's interesting to note that it's OK if a customer is both loyal and trapped, but a customer who's just trapped is a problem just waiting for someone to figure out how to break the trap. This likely describes most of Oracle's install base today—trapped customers trying to find a way out—and, at the end of the 1980s, IBM's customers. Sun and Microsoft aggressively came up with ways for these customers to escape. In a few short months, IBM went from being a healthy company to one on life support.

Knowing this, EMC is able to better target products, services, software, support and executive relationships to maximize customer loyalty. The end result has been an increase in profitability and market share. This program is so successful that the guy who created it, Vice President of Quality Jim Bampos, is now selling it to partners and customers who demanded that EMC productize it.

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EMC has taken this one step further by analyzing competitors' customers so it can turn those companies into EMC advocates and customers. This process mirrors the way Obama won the 2012 election, it's currently unmatched in the IT industry and, given the performance increases on display in the new Greenplum Pivotal HD platform, it may quickly become unstoppable.

Look for Big Answers in All That Big Data

To the executive funding the big data effort, the process of storing, managing, protecting and optimizing the data isn't interesting. Yes, it has to be done, but what the executive wants is a timely answer to win in the market and advance his or her career. Focusing on the data itself won't get that done. What will? Information the executive can actually use.

This is why Reed argues that the whole idea of big data focuses on the wrong thing. People don't want data; they want critical, accurate answers quickly. That's the nature of the Pivotal HD announcement, and that's why it's important to understand how Barack Obama won an election he was expected to lose. A similar focus on big answers, not big data, could better assure your own company's success.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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