It's a staggering statistic. Because of the rapid expansion of structured and unstructured data produced by companies and individuals, there will be more data than grains of sand in the world within five years. How do you process that much information?

Consolidate the data

“When all the data is stored in the same place, running big data applications are easier — and cloud-based technology can help to simplify that,” explains “Big Data” co-author Kenneth Cukier. “Once the data sits in the cloud, it’s easier to integrate it into new business processes, or combined with other data for analytical insight. Cloud computing is a huge enabler of big data activities in business and scientific research. And big data is giving organizations a new justification to go through the process of shifting IT operations to the cloud.”

Numbers tell the story

Experts at the Computer Sciences Corporation estimate that by 2020, there will be a 4,300 percent increase in the amount of data generated annually. Information is now being stored so quickly and from so many sources that traditional IT management and analytic software doesn't have the capability to properly manage, store, process and analyze it.

A longtime business-technology journalist, Cukier realizes how data is changing the business landscape and international competitiveness.

“The most important question is: ‘Does big data have top management buy-in?’ Without that support, big data is a dead duck.”

“Companies can benefit from big data in two ways. First, they can measure their existing activities and improve efficiency by optimizing their operations. Second, the data can be the source of new revenue streams. An example is a factory that can measure the efficiency of their machinery by weather or age to predict when it needs maintenance before it breaks down. The factory benefits, but it might also license that information on predicting potential breakdowns to other firms that use those machines but aren’t a direct competitor.”

Asking the right questions

Cukier says before investing in big data solutions, companies shouldn't initially focus on what they'll do with the technology.

“The most important question is: ‘Does big data have top management buy-in?’ Without that support, big data is a dead duck. Next, the questions are: What data do we have — and is it in the right form to be used? What other data do we need, and how can we get it? Do we have the right people or do we need to fill gaps so we know what kit to buy? Finally, the question becomes: Do we have the right culture to listen to data and change our processes, or do we need to work on that as well?”

What lies ahead

When asked what industry he sees big data and analytics having the biggest impact on in the future, Cukier responds by noting that the customer experience industry is next in line for a revolution.

“The good news is that marketing performance can be measured and, finally, the industry is putting some science around their practices and less art. The drawback is that the practice of providing superior marketing is a special bit of creativity and excellence that will be lost if all decisions need to pass through a big-data RIO filter. The key will be marrying the data to human ingenuity.”