“Our clients want us to help them predict the future” was a statement made to me during a recent chat with a customer. Now, you may think my initial reaction was to laugh or to await a punch line, but my response was, perhaps unpredictably, “Well, if you don’t help them, someone else will”, proceeding to describe the real-time big data analytics and predictive analytics solutions they could consider.
The ability to predict events before they happen is soon to be a prevalent and ultimately realistic demand of individuals and organisations. To know, with a high degree of certainty, when your fridge is likely to cease working or when your car engine will see its fuel efficiency drop are useful predictions for sure. They pale in comparison, however, to knowing if and when you will develop Alzheimer’s disease or suffer a stroke, or where and when the next humanitarian crisis or natural disaster will occur. I believe these are questions that can be answered in the very near future.
Hollywood movies have a good track record in predicting the future. Cast your mind back to the HD video calls made in Blade Runner (1982) or the wearable technology in Back to the Future (1989) At the time, we accepted these technologies as being the wizardry of the film industry. Minority Report (2002) centred on the ability of enforcement officers to determine where and when specific crimes would happen, before they had been committed. Fast-forward to today: multi-touch interfaces and augmented reality, combined with initiatives such as Predictive Policing in the U.S, identifies Minority Report as another example of Hollywood’s prophetic skills.
So there’s a risk in ignoring the capabilities of analytics and big data. These will affect all organisations, as the very nature of business is to seek and sustain competitive advantage. Questions will be asked by your customers, your employees – even your family members. These will focus on how best to use the huge amounts of data they are generating through business applications, personal devices and wearable technology, so as to best understand what will likely happen in the future. Technology now exists to collect and process this data so quickly and cheaply that previously unattainable insight and intelligence can now be gleaned through advanced analytics.
But there’s always a ‘but’. At the moment, analytics is as much an art as a science. To get the best from the technology, you will need to develop or find skills that combine domain knowledge, scientific methods and technology expertise. Your analytics expert must know your business intimately. Specifically:
- They must understand your goals and your challenges, and have a clear understanding of what your data means;
- They must be able to implement machine learning algorithms or statistical models to help you maximise the potential of your data;
- They must have rich knowledge of big data technologies and be able to implement the best tools to meet your requirements, without being constrained to particular vendors.
Most importantly, they must be able to deliver results on an iterative, continual basis. This amounts to adopting an agile approach to analytics – think of it as identifying the “minimum valuable question”!. The answer should be derived as quickly as possible, presented to the right people, using the right technologies. Repeating this process, building up a catalogue of valuable insights as you go, will ensure success is visible quickly and continually.
So, if any of your stakeholders come to you and ask for help in predicting the future, tell them that it’s possible. Tell them to prepare for a truly exciting, analytics adventure!