Starting small could be the magic potion for big data

Conversations about big data are bringing the importance of analytics to forefront. The issue is not the data itself, but what you do with the data to drive business value. As companies explore opportunities, it’s becoming clear that analytics is not a tactical, departmental function, but rather part of a strategic vision for the organisation.

Here EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta talks to Kelly McGuire, executive director, Hospitality and Travel Global Practice at SAS Institute about making big data an integral part of an organisation.

EFT: So how can one justify investment in analytics?

KG: Fostering a strategic analytic culture will ensure that organisations are fully utilising their data assets as part of the corporate DNA. 

Travel executives need to be evangelists on the value of fact-based decision making. Challenge your teams to provide “proof” based on the numbers, and insist that strategy be backed up by facts. Build a strong foundation of information management so that you can easily access and use your data – no matter what size it may be. Not only will this justify your investments in big-data analytics, but it will also move your organisation forward, setting it up to beat the competition. 

Practically, the trends in this area are all based around technology to support information management and analytic delivery. IT is moving beyond relational databases towards analytical databases. 

Organisations are thinking about how to make analytics accessible to a broader group of users. Visualisation heavy, wizard-driven analytic solutions are coming on the market making it much easier for a business analyst to consume large data sets, pick up trends and opportunities and then pass them along to the technical analysts for further study.

This, combined with big analytics solutions that speed up time to decisions, means organisations will be able to deal with many more projects in the same amount of time. 

This trend will be crucial to establishing and sustaining a strategic analytic culture. (Experts say this means when analysed meticulously data should reflect business value).

EFT: What are the major challenges of big data?

KG: The challenges are two-fold. 

1.    The first is adjusting the technology infrastructure to handle the storage and processing of large amounts of data. Storing data for analytic use is not really the same as storing transactions. It needs to be prepared and stored in such a way that promotes efficiency in analytical processes. This will require rethinking the information infrastructure in many travel companies. 

2.    The second challenge is having resources on staff that can interpret the data and analytics. You need people that know the business well enough to understand where opportunities lie, and to know the analytics well enough to understand what’s possible, and what the results mean. 

Broadly speaking, enterprise-wide use of data and analytics is relatively new to travel (even though many companies have gotten quite sophisticated in specialised applications like pricing), so there’s a certain amount of “we don’t know what we don’t know”. Ensuring that you have the right resources on staff to help drive that value will be an increasingly important component of a big-data programme.  

EFT: What are your recommendations for the travel sector?

KG: Stay focused on the business problem you are trying to solve and then figure out how your data can support that analysis. You can easily get lost with all the data coming at you from all your source systems – not to mention the volume and variety of available third-party data. If you know what problem you are trying to solve, you can cut through the ‘noise’ to the root of what you need from a data and analytics perspective. 

The travel and hospitality industries have traditionally been very emotionally driven when it comes to decision-making – not surprising in a service-oriented environment.  As competition heats up, however, travel executives I speak with tell me that while there’s a lot of talk about big data out there, they would be happy with just some data that so that they could start making decisions based on facts rather than emotions. Starting small and being smart about how you use your data will put travel companies on the road to success.

EFT: How should the travel industry go about turning their data sources into actionable business intelligence?

KG: In order to fully realise the opportunity provided by your big data, you’ll need more than just business intelligence (although that is a valuable component), you’ll need big analytics. The larger the data, the harder it becomes to store, process, analyse and report on. 

Travel executives need to be proactively re-evaluating their data infrastructure and analytic technology plans so that they can be ready to support the next business problem that comes along. Storing the data so it is analytics-ready is crucial to success. Even if your organisation is not quite at the stage of big data streamlining, your data infrastructure and implementation of “big analytics” will speed up time to decision making and help your organisation to be nimble enough to survive and thrive in the new economy. 

EFT: Considering the complexity of data usage and the growing demand for quick response, how should businesses make the most of big data on an ongoing basis?

KG: Setting up sustainable internal processes will be the first step to ensuring that organisations continue to make the most of big data. Also, consider following points:

·         IT and management are going to have to work together to define the business problem and build repeatable processes to solve it.  IT will need to ensure that the information infrastructure is in place to run the analysis that is needed to take advantage of big data. 

·         The organisation will have to focus on data management and data governance – building solid rules and processes around how data is gathered, calculated, stored and used. There will need to be discipline and repetition in regard to building, testing and deploying models. 

·         IT should leverage self-service applications that allow business analysts to do their own visualisation and exploration. This will not only take pressure off overworked IT groups, but help to foster widespread use of analytics across the enterprise. 

·         Finally, executive management needs to put all their support into these initiatives. If the mandate of fact-based decision making and business strategy developed with analytic support does not come from the top, organisations will have difficulty sustaining the value from their big data. 

For more insights from SAS Institute’s Kelly McGuire join us at the Travel Distribution Summit in Singapore from 28-29 May

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