Big Data in the Real World Isn't So Easy

The pundits make it sound so simple. But CIOs wrestling with overwhelming amounts of unwieldy data know that 'big data' is a big challenge that requires high-quality data, new approaches to data management and more processing power. But the payoff could be a strong competitive advantage.

General Motors' OnStar service, which provides drivers with remote vehicle diagnostics and responds to emergencies, already manages as much as 3 petabytes of data annually. OnStar CIO Jeffrey Liedel knows there is so much more that can be done to exploit that data-for the benefit of drivers and GM's business.

For example, GM is pilot-testing a mobile app for its Chevrolet Volt electric car that would help drivers monitor their vehicle batteries and remotely manage charging them.

Competitors, including Nissan and Ford, offer similar capabilities to monitor electric vehicles, or they plan to. Drivers want manufacturers to alleviate their "range anxiety," or worry about whether an electric vehicle is about to run out of juice. But that's not all. "There's something about the electric vehicle —you want to be connected to it," Liedel says. "The customer is more interested in analytics: How well am I driving, driving patterns, what's my fuel economy." (The Volt can also run on gasoline.)

Electric vehicle owners aren't the only ones who want deeper insight from OnStar data. Internal business users and external partners want it, too. It falls to IT, Liedel says, to deliver the data in a way that is reliable, secure and flexible. "The key has been to recognize the importance of data and analytics," he says. "Even though sometimes it's not core to running a transactional system, it's a key part of running the business."

Not every CIO has to manage petabytes of information. But even companies that collect mere gigabytes of their own data are, increasingly, tapping information from outside their own systems. Having the capacity to process "big data" and the tools to analyze it effectively is becoming a competitive necessity.

"Every organization is trying to leverage the data that it has, or that is has access to, much better than they ever have before," observes Gavin Michael, chief technology innovation officer at Accenture, yet "a lot of companies have had small analytics groups. They've never seen it as an enterprise resource." CIOs are able to take an enterprise view of data, understand how to integrate it and help colleagues analyze it.

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