Of the three Vs of big data—volume, velocity, and variety—volume is the biggest, literally. Processing large volumes is a signature characteristic of big data analytics; it's not necessarily the most important or the most challenging, but it fosters a strategic tipping point when incubated properly.
There are many ways to use large volumes of data for a strategic advantage, and operational data is one of my favorites. I've defined big data in competitive terms as: the massive amount of rapidly moving and freely available data that potentially serves a valuable and unique need in the marketplace, but is extremely expensive and difficult to mine. What I like most about operational data is that it's freely available to you, but completely unavailable to your competition. Let me show you where the real value is in your massive amount of free operational data.
I was working with the leaders at Cargill, a large food and agricultural business that owns processing plants all over the world, and we had an interesting discussion about Operational Intelligence (OI) and how their company could benefit from expanding their base of data.
Since I started as a business intelligence and data warehousing consultant, my view of OI started as the natural outgrowth from an operational data store. When I moved into management consulting, I took on a perspective that's more oriented to business operations, and the value information can provide to that function. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the shift in perspective is worth noting.
There's a hierarchy that's important to understand. Data that's collected for an individual unit (plant, facility, site, etc.) can be referred to as Site Intelligence. We can then think of OI as the aggregation of site intelligence collected from all units that comprise business operations. When you combine OI with other important business functions like Sales & Marketing, Finance, and Customer Service, you have real business intelligence. OI represents a significant point of strategic maturity for the company.
OI represents breadth of knowledge—an important and challenging milestone in a company's analytic maturity. If you have 1,000 sites around the world and each site collects, processes, and analyzes its own operational data, then the most any one site can know is what's within its own walls. This is a common situation, as there is typically one site manager who manages data in a way that best helps him or her accomplish the plant's performance goals.
Consolidating and standardizing site data broadens the company's information base for the benefit of all. With a centrally organized OI system, site managers can garner insights into how other sites are doing; it opens channels for data-based performance ranking, continual learning from best practices, and accurate benchmarking. Executives benefit from having access to individual site data and aggregated analytics to drive overall strategic performance. Everyone benefits once the OI system is deployed and matured.