Getting a Grip on Big Data
I am a sucker for TED Talks.
As you probably know, TED Talks are a series of speeches by experts from a wide range of disciplines. More often than not, I don’t know much about the subject prior to plugging headphones into my smartphone and firing up TED Radio Hour, but I occasionally come across something that’s in my wheelhouse.
Susan Etlinger, a data analyst featured in an older episode titled “Big Data Revolution,” observed that we give off “digital exhaust” everywhere we go, and that seems the perfect way to describe how we have come to interact with the world around us.
Whether tapping away at our smartphones to find deals on Amazon or stream shows on Netflix, we are creating a lot of digital information on a day-to-day basis. As data scientist Riccardo Sabatini says in that same episode, “In 10 years, the amount of data you have about yourself will be ‘uncomputable’ by a human being.” It’s a point that raises an important question for businesses: as we collect more and more data from a quickly growing, increasingly plugged-in population, how do we effectively leverage it?
Categorize Your Data
Marketing is often associated with Big Data, and for good reason. Most people have at least heard of Google Analytics, and if you’re at all involved in managing your company’s website, you understand that it’s important to know which pages get the most traffic. With that information in hand, you can work toward developing more of that type of content to drive up engagement and, hopefully, improve your company’s bottom line via direct sales, ad revenue, or whatever way you’re monetizing your business.
This strategy can and should be used in non-marketing-focused business decisions. Establish precisely what it is you’re trying to learn and categorize your collected data accordingly. That way, whether you’re looking for customer-driven business trends or examining the price of a service relative the time needed to provide it over a five-year period, you’ll know your queries are informed by a carefully crafted taxonomy. If you don’t, you risk falling into the “bad data in, bad data out” trap.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Since some data tends to live in the not-as-easily-parsed world of paper—like the client-document skyscrapers swaying on tax professionals’ desks each year—you’re going to need to find a way to easily convert that information to a “queryable” digital format. Rather than hiring a temp to manually convert those documents, many companies are utilizing document imaging to perform the heavy lifting.
Here’s how some software-as-a-service document imaging products work: you scan the physical documents and submit them to a third-party provider, which then converts the files to a bookmarked, searchable PDF. (Specific to the tax industry, some of these services will actually create a file that can be .)
Transitioning to a paperless office can help you more easily utilize data analysis strategies and tools that are essential for getting a grip on Big Data, as well as encourage more efficient workflow within some of your traditional systems (tax preparation software, for example).
Making the Leap
“Big Data” is a term that generally brings to mind a dataset of such proportions that only the largest multi-department companies can process by using high-powered computers humming in a basement-level server room. That basement full of computers is absolutely a reality for some companies, but across the spectrum, from accounting to utilities, the consensus is that Big Data is essential for successful businesses of all sizes. That means it’s not a question of if you should make the leap, but if you will be ready when you do.