Decoding Big Data with Dr. Phil Shelley

Dr. Phil Shelley knows what’s missing in the big data environment: Manageable volume. Faultless architecture. Unquestionable security. Robust identification and application. He leads two companies to fill those needs.

Risk mitigation. Real-time monitoring and forecasting. Next-generation products and services development.

Big data proponents know all the right words to captivate executives inspired to lead their companies to the forefront of the ever-increasing technology-driven business environment. Yet, while advocates may have the very best intentions, without an understanding of how to leverage the capability, big data’s usefulness can rival that of a floppy disk. As this tends to exist outside the scope of understanding for most business leaders, responsibility for maximizing big data potential falls to the solution providers—many of whom punch out after the initial big data implementation.

Dr. Phil Shelley, former CTO of Sears Holdings Corporation, wants to change that. A pioneer of big data, he understands how to revolutionize a company’s business practices to accommodate customer expectations. His company, Newton Park Partners, is an advanced analytics and big data strategy consulting service. Shelley is also the director at DataMetica, an offshore development and support company that aims to translate use cases into practical needs, as well as help companies get started with big data initiatives.

“Making data actionable and making it real time, making it meaningful to people in their role, whatever their role is, those are the big changes we need to drive.”

Big data has matured exponentially over the years, burgeoning well beyond its roots in batch processing. “Doing analysis, producing reports on smaller sets of data, with less history, less detail, and whole business intelligence was really all that could be done in the last two decades,” Shelley says. “The tools weren’t really there to do more detail, more history, nearer to real time. It just wasn’t possible.”

Now, with mobility driving data analytics and the expectation of immediate gratification, yesterday’s clunky legacy solutions fall short of market demands. Additionally, inexpensive and ubiquitous memory continues to accelerate rapidly. This allows for more productivity in real time in larger data sets. “It’s going to be bigger, faster, and cheaper,” Shelley says. Simply put, companies cannot afford to not keep pace.

Yet, organizations are barely scraping the surface of their full capability. “The potential is huge compared to what is being tapped today,” Shelley says. “I’d say penetration of this kind of new data architecture thinking in large companies is less than 10 percent. Less than 50 percent of companies are doing something meaningful, and inside those companies where they’re doing it, penetration is less than 10 percent—probably less than 5 percent.”

This is especially true for larger companies, usually slow to embrace new ways of thinking about data and analytics. However, big data initiatives can be implemented in ways that are low risk and low cost, and advances can be easily accomplished from a change-management point of view. “Enterprises [need to] start doing something rather than ignore the change,” Shelley says. “There is a competitive element to this that will creep up on them. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that these architectural changes are fundamentally underway, are very clear, and can’t be ignored.”

To maximize their potential, companies need to develop the vision of where they can take big data management and what it can do for them. This is where providers have the opportunity to play a significant role. But up until now, most have lacked the necessary follow through of helping companies develop a more strategic and long-term approach.

Businesses rely on providers who understand these techniques with not only the technical adoption of big data but practical applications that align with and make sense for the company objectives. Essentially, providers need to bridge the gap and think about big data from a customer perspective. “What’s missing is the practical operational knowledge of, in an open environment, running these new architectures,” Shelley says. “From the solution provider side, one of the issues today is the lack of practical, hands-on experience.”

Providers cannot simply code and leave it at that. They need to understand governance and how to integrate with legacy systems and security, among other things. Big data is a new frontier for many business leaders and managers, one that they’re still trying to comprehend. “It’s a matter of getting the right skills and service offerings together that can do this holistic reengineering,” Shelley says. “It’s not about bodies and staff and technical skills. It’s about bringing these new solutions to companies in a holistic way.”

This idea serves as the impetus of DataMetica and is also what sets it apart. From platform design and sizing to Hadoop application support, the company’s cradle-to-grave range of services guides clients through the entire process of adoption. Shelley particularly stresses the importance of the initial planning phase. Part education, part discovery, this helps organizations think about data in a new way and uncovers and outlines their business needs. “Once you have those things at least reasonably clear, then the path forward to learning and implementation is much less torturous and less risky.” Shelley says, “I’m a big believer in getting some of those things done early. It has a profound impact on success.”

Of course, challenges arise. But these, more often than not, are of the change-management variety. Technically, there are few issues. What determines the success of an effort rests completely on the leadership attitude. Hesitation or skepticism will kill a project before it has the chance to fill space on a whiteboard. To bolster enthusiasm and gain support, Shelley looks to use cases to demonstrate the value of big data. The key, he warns, is choosing one with a meaningful and measurable ROI that affords a client early success. “Get a few early, even if they’re small, and go from there,” he says. “That’s so important. It shows the whole organization that this stuff is for real. It takes the fear away, too.”

Shelley also recommends establishing an enterprise data hub. Comprising customer and product detail, this enterprise-wide, single-point-of-truth architecture allows companies to make smart decisions with a lot of power. Overall, the process might take three to five years, but this is enough at the moment to drive service and efficiency.

As the IT landscape changes, so too are the roles of service providers. Shelley offers that, moving forward, big data will be less about tech and more about business and change management. A key factor is the ability to be personable. “If you want to drive change in business, you’re in a much better position if you can have an appreciation of different people’s perspectives,” Shelley says. “Making data actionable and making it real time, making it meaningful to people in their role, whatever their role is, those are the big changes we need to drive.”