Big Questions: Reflections on Dell World 2015

The following is a guest post from Susan Etlinger, industry analyst at Altimeter Group, A Prophet company. 


Susan Etlinger and Professor Ari Lightman at Dell World 2015

A couple of weeks ago, at Dell World, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Ari Lightman, Director of the CIO Institute and Distinguished Service Professor of Digital Media and Marketing at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.

Ari’s role at CMU encompasses both student and executive education, but the thing that got us going was data in all its many incarnations, and how the proliferation of data is changing so many expectations of how businesses do and should operate.

We talked about data piracy, governance, business models, measurement, minimization and best practices, business cases, and even the idea that we are creating, every minute of every day, a data “microbiome” that encompasses every digital detail of our lives. You can view the videos here:

What strikes me about the conversation with Ari, and others like it at DellWorld, is the sheer breadth of questions that we are all grappling with, albeit from different angles.

On a panel the day before, for example, Dell cited its GTAI 2015 research that stated that “organizations that are actively using data grow 50 percent faster than laggards.” The top barrier for the organizations not using data strategically? “Not knowing if the benefits are worth the costs.” In organizations that are using data strategically, “the top barrier when extracting insights is the cost of the IT infrastructure.” Either way you slice it, “big data” still has a ways to go in the business case department.

Tom Reilly, CEO of Cloudera, shared the use cases he and his team see on a regular basis that he feels best articulate the value of cloud services and—of course—data. Those include:

  • A 360-degree view of the customer: the ability to understand what customers and consumers want and need at every stage of their buying journey/lifecycle;
  • New data-driven products and services that data can enable; and
  • Identifying risks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to find within the organization.

Says Reilly, “You have to start with a use case, then find the data to optimize.” Based on what I have seen, this is not only a best practice for data strategy, it’s one that supports ethical (and respectful) data use practices as well. Why? Because it provides a natural framework to prioritize the data needed, rather than giving in to an impulse to collect all possible data (regardless of relevance) just in case it might someday become useful.

While data minimization is a best practice here in the United States, it’s law in South Africa—see the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) legislation. This principle is also one that is commonly discussed among people who are involved in data ethics; the Information Accountability Foundation, among others.

The most interesting example that came from the panel was a project that John Thompson, General Manager of Advanced Analytics at Dell, described: using data in surgical theaters to predict a patient’s likelihood to develop sepsis (infection).  This not only has financial implications, but massive human impact as well.

What I see at the edges now—at conferences and among academics, for example—is a growing tendency to bring in multidisciplinary teams to better understand not only the business cases but the ethical, financial, risk and innovation implications of what we tend to call “big data.” It is a trend that I believe is critical to our ability to fully understand and, frankly, survive the intense disruption that data proliferation is creating.

So our next step as an industry is to convene the conversations that will help us address these questions holistically. We know that “big data” cuts across organizational silos, but those of us who are deeply interested in the business and cultural value of data have the responsibility to surmount those silos most of all.


Susan EtlingerSusan Etlinger is an industry analyst with Altimeter Group, where she focuses on data intelligence, analytics and strategy. Susan works with global 2000 clients to incorporate data analytics into organizational culture and practices. Susan also works with technology vendors to refine product roadmaps and strategies based on her independent research. She is a member of the board for The Big Boulder Initiative, an industry organization dedicated to promoting the successful and ethical use of social data. Susan is regularly interviewed and asked to speak on social strategy and best practices for business and has been quoted in outlets including The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, BBC and Fast Company.

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