Unstructured data is changing the face of IT and business. It delivers remarkable opportunities for companies but also enormous challenges.
By Samuel Greengard
Getting closer to your customer is the mantra of every retailer. But when Gary King, CIO of Chico's, addresses the concept, he takes a highly unstructured view. Although the clothing chain diligently stores records of customer transactions in a conventional database and maintains profiles of customer preferences, it also taps into a growing stream of unstructured data, including social media, clickstream information and online behavior analysis. "We are achieving an entirely different view of our customers and using it to build better relationships and greater loyalty," King explains.
Make no mistake, Chico's is at the forefront of a rapidly evolving data ecosystem. Although structured data isn't going away, the role of unstructured data--and the way organizations combine different types of data sets--is fundamentally altering the face of IT and business. "Technology is providing new and powerful ways to use data and extract greater business value," says Nick Millman, digital, data and analytics lead for Accenture Europe, Africa and Latin America.
Of course, gaining deeper insight into patterns, trends and behavior represents a formidable challenge. There are business issues to address, technical challenges to solve, and a need to think about business problems and data in entirely different ways. In addition, enterprises must keep an eye on mobility, cloud computing, social media, big data and analytics trends so that it's possible to feed relevant information to software, systems and experts that are able to transform it into real-world results.
This data-driven era is just beginning to take shape. "Management's reflexes are built around navigating, managing and extracting value from structured data,” says Andy Rusnak, a partner in the finance and performance management practice at Ernst & Young. “Unstructured data represents an entirely different premise. It often comes from outside the four walls of the corporation. It comes from sources that you have little, if any, control over."
Beyond the Database
Although structured data has served the enterprise well--it has created remarkable opportunities to manage a mind-bending array of business requirements--rows and columns represent somewhat of a flat-earth approach to analytics. IBM estimates that about 80 percent of enterprise data now falls into the unstructured and semi-structured categories. This includes email, Microsoft Office files, text and IM streams, video, audio, photos, PDFs, social media exchanges, metadata, stored web pages, health records and much more.
In fact, industry estimates peg the growth of unstructured data at 10X to 50X annually, depending on the specific company and the industry. But it's not only the volume of data that CIOs struggle with, it's the complexity of combining and rearranging myriad elements in a way that produces tangible results. “The challenge isn't to capture, store and process all the data," Rusnak says. "It's to understand which pools of data to tap into and how to combine them in a way that helps the enterprise achieve a competitive edge."
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