Okay, hands up the genius who thought big data was a cool name for today’s hottest business bandwagon? Whoever you are, I bet you’re pleased with yourself. You can’t open the newspapers’ business sections without some mention of the buzzword du jour.
There’s a growing flood of books, blogs, and consultancies crowing about the dawn of the big data era. The likes of Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, SAP, EMC, and HP are spending $billions on brandishing their big data muscles. Adobe runs big data ads in the marketing press. Google and Facebook are rubbing their big data hands in glee, while McKinsey’s wanders the globe as John the Baptist rapturously heralding the big data messiah.
I don’t think you have to be a privacy militant to find this hyper-excitement disturbing, even distasteful. It’s surely no surprise that when the world’s big boys get in a big lather over the next big thing, it’s because they smell a big killing. Which probably means that small business and even smaller customers better watch their backs.
Why? Well, the clue’s in the name: big. Let’s go through the roll call of some other famous bigs. Megastars all, men who need no introduction. How about big tobacco? That’s the affectionate term earned by the tobacco industry, more particularly the "big three" tobacco corporations in the United States - Philip Morris, Reynolds American and Lorillard - who worked so hard to obscure the association between smoking and premature death.
Big oil, there’s another one. That’s the collective noun for the petroleum and gas super-majors, summing up the gigantic economic muscle and political influence that crude oil exerts globally. Need I go on? Well, I will. Big banks for crippling competition and bankrupting taxpayers? Big sugar for services to diabetes and obesity? Big chocolate for bullying cocoa producers into price submission? Big Brother for pioneering the benefits of totalitarianism and bad TV?
Big in business really doesn’t have much of a reputational record. It generally signifies the worst excesses of corporate hubris and the irresponsible exertion of power. Of course, the major corporations and the international consultancies love anything big - it suits their cultural machismo and anti-competitive instincts. It’s another big thing to boast about. It keeps them firmly in their comfort zone of command and control.
But going big in business always brings in big risk. The risk that what may be big for profit doesn’t always bring big benefit to customers. That one company’s big opportunity might squeeze out smaller, less powerful businesses altogether. And when customers get fed up with being duped, manipulated, corralled or just taken for granted, they sometimes remember their role as citizens. And, as citizens, they can wake up their politicians to rein in the big boys and legislate to cut big down to size. And that can mean chucking out good babies with bad bathwater.
So before we all herd behind the big data banner, let’s curb our enthusiasm and consider the dangers of over-playing the big data hand. We know that the smarter use of data has the potential to do so much good for everyone. We know that better integration and sharing of data will bring massive benefits in terms of improved services and product innovation.
We know that the future is digital and that that future will be fuelled by the data collected from ever-expanding sources. But let’s avoid the rush to big. Or if big is the inevitable way to describe it, let’s imagine something not just bigger, but better.
How about big customer?