Unlocking Opportunities in Big Data

Big data is no longer just for big companies. SMEs can now tap on online or cloud-based solutions to crunch their numbers and gain new insights at a price that suits their pocket.

By Peter Simons, Head of Finance Transformation Research, CIMA


The term ‘big data’, the business buzzword, refers to the tools and processes that allow an organisation to capture, manage and analyse massive quantities of information.


According to an international survey we carried out with our joint venture partner the AICPA (American Institute of CPAs), 86% of organisations are struggling to turn growing volumes of data into valuable insight.


The volume and variety of data available for analysis are expanding exponentially. Meanwhile, increasingly powerful technologies have emerged to enable more sophisticated data management and analytics. The wealth of data sources available today includes call-centre recordings, external data feeds, machine-generated data and customers’ social media posts. These related trends are combining to enable today’s organisations to unlock new sources of insight and value.


Big data and analytics provide numerous opportunities for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), too. While smaller companies typically have limited resources and smaller budgets, they do have other advantages: typically, a more flexible IT infrastructure, with fewer legacy system issues or disparate databases, and an ability to change practices quickly.


Our survey results show that, while small companies are more likely to rely on intuition than data to make decisions, they also understand the opportunities that big data presents. In this data-driven era, SMEs that choose to ignore the value of data in decision-making run the risk of losing out to others who are gaining new insights from their data.


Using specialist software and data services, SMEs can combine existing enterprise data with external data to uncover new insights. While traditional tools from major vendors may be unaffordable for many SMEs, many online and cloud-based options are available to help analyse data—including Google Analytics, Kaggle, Swipely and Tableau. These give SMEs access to powerful means for making sense of their business performance in new ways without the hefty price tag.


This can start at the most basic of levels: when Morey’s Piers, an amusement park operator in the US, wanted to assess the relative popularity of different rides, it literally bagged the paper tickets and weighed them. Today, electronic gate scanners provide clear data on which rides are performing and which need to be switched.


For Sweaty Betty, a UK women’s retailer, the data and the geo-demographical services from Experian provided them with detailed insights into their customers’ profiles and helped determine new store locations.


Some small businesses are even developing new data services off the back of these software tools. Powerhouse Factories, a brand building agency, has adopted data tools from Tableau, a data analytics platform, to replace its prior reliance on Excel and help visualise issues for clients, such as showing how delays at checkout queues affected a retailer.


These tools are changing the data possibilities available to SMEs without the huge financial commitment to IT service providers.


Big data raises challenging questions about the future role of finance. It needs to look beyond traditional business metrics and recognise the commercial potential of embracing a wider set of data. In addition to the essential financial and enterprise data they already work with, finance will need to review other non-traditional sources of data in order to gain a more thorough understanding of business performance. Management accountants have much to gain from and contribute to this new era.