One of the things that struck me about this book is how accessible it is. I had expected it to be a dry treatise on data, data models, databases and such, but Thomas Davenport quickly dispels my preconceived notions by adopting an extremely appreciated conversational tone throughout. In short, Big Data at Work: Dispelling the Myths, Uncovering the Opportunities, despite its ambitious name, reads like a coffee table book. At least, a coffee table book for nerds.
Big data has always been an unfortunate name, lending itself to the sort of questions that cannot be answered. How big is big, for example? Davenport assures that it is not the size that matters- for that is bound to increase in exponential magnitudes- but how we transform data into accurate insights, radical innovations, lean processes and better service to customers.
Some people say that big data is a brand new concept defined by the 3 Vs, volume, velocity and variety. Personally, I disagree. Back when I was tabulating survey scores in the dinosaur spreadsheet application that was Lotus 1-2-3, I had already begun to view data in terms of volume, velocity and variety.
Fact! There is nothing fundamentally new in the way we look at data. Back in the 1970s, big data was known as Decision Support. In the mid 1990s, Business Intelligence came onstage. From 2010 onwards, however, BAM! Big data was born. Held against the 3 Vs, big data is huge (really, really humungous), continuous, and presented in widely differing formats.
While Davenport skims adequately through the technologies, infrastructure and human resources needed for big data to happen, I feel that the book’s most inspiring part is its exposition on the culture that must be built for big data to have any chance of success, at least in an organisation’s initial foray. Davenport distills five essential qualities that drive big data forward.
- The first is impatience with the now, and gaining a sense of urgency- an attribute that is most pronounced in technology start-ups, and a challenge to sustain in mature organisations.
- The second is to be passionate about innovation and exploration- and these translate to a willingness to experiment as well as to make mistakes.
- The third is to accept technology as a source of incredible disruption, especially in a climate of open source sharing.
- The fourth is to demand a culture of absolute commitment from the senior management of an organisation to bold, audacious goals.
- And the fifth is to adopt an open, non-hierarchical and meritocratic climate, where big ideas can arrive from anyone and anywhere in the organisation.
These qualities might sound like common sense, but requires more than just words to implement. From me, at least, Davenport has succeeded in drawing out a growing enthusiasm to embed the redeeming qualities of a big data culture in my own work.
Grab Davenport’s Big data at Work from the Hon Sui Sen Memorial Library.