An Unstructured Approach

Unstructured data is changing the face of IT and business. It delivers remarkable opportunities for companies but also enormous challenges.

The data has also yielded some unexpected benefits. Increasingly, Chico's can gauge how a marketing strategy is working in real-time across channels and make tweaks and adjustments on the fly. The retailer is also better able to identify the type of person that's best suited to work as a sales associate in its stores and what type of dialog with customers maximizes the odds of a sale. Ultimately, "the technology is taking us closer to the customer,” says King. “It is transforming the business in ways that we couldn't have anticipated a few years ago."

Thinking Big

Developing a data strategy and putting the systems, software and tools in place to execute it is critical. Accenture's Millman says there's a need to identify an organization's touch points and where it can most benefit from unstructured data. This requires conversations across departmental lines and an ability to see the business in 3D. It also means considering tools that fit today's analytics environment, including non-relational databases that fall into the NoSQL category and open-source distributed computing models like Apache Hadoop that can significantly ratchet up computing power.

It's also necessary to address an array of practical and technical issues, ranging from how best to analyze raw data and combine it with metadata to understanding where it can be plugged into an analytics strategy. Too often, Rusnak says, organizations fail to translate initiatives into real-world results because they lack an adequate master data management plan or there's simply too much complexity resulting from multiple data formats, cloud and SaaS environments, and distributed storage. In fact, about two-thirds of IT executives can't say where all their enterprise data is stored, according to industry research.

Finally, it's vital to cultivate the right thinking and skills within the business and in IT, Rusnak says. In many cases, CIOs and other executives must define new positions that defy traditional job titles and responsibilities. They also must work with CMOs, COOs and other senior executives to break down silos and connect the enterprise dots more effectively. And they must have a strong IT governance model in place to establish internal data ownership and sharing requirements. In some cases, these issues can extend to business partners and third-party providers, as well as data residing on systems outside the enterprise.

In the end, it's wise for CIOs to approach unstructured data as a treasure chest but one that can be difficult to unlock. Building the right infrastructure and pathways requires different thinking, plus entirely new skills. It requires unprecedented cooperation and next-generation tools and policies that put the data fully into play--and connect it to conventional databases and search engines. "Analytics is evolving and a new era of big data is emerging,” concludes Millman. “Unstructured data is a key piece of the puzzle."

This article was originally published on 02-01-2013
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