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IT offices must investigate the context surrounding their banks of data

Richard Jones

October 4, 2013

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Companies in all industries have an interest in maintaining data quality - if they are able to use more accurate information to guide their future plans of action, either externally in marketing or internally for finance and HR, they should be able to increase productivity and save money in the process.

Before they can ensure quality, though, they must investigate the context surrounding their data collection. Prior to tackling any complex business problems, they should be able to answer the more basic questions - what, why and how. According to Jim Harris of The Data Roundtable, not enough companies are putting in the work to understand their data before using it.

First, data scientists should ask themselves where their data originated - how it was collected, what sources were used to bring it in and whether there might be any inherent biases in those sources. Then, there's the specific circumstances of the data set. Where was it gathered and when? How do these questions of setting affect the information? Finally, companies can begin to tackle their business quandaries by examining what their data truly means and how it can be applied to business decisions.

While virtually all companies are gathering "big data" in some capacity, very few are completing the entire process of analyzing its greater meaning and figuring out how it fits into their plans. Harris, for one, believes this intellectual laziness needs to change. Companies need to do more legwork.

"The first thing you must do is investigate," Harris wrote on his OCDQ Blog. "So, grab your favorite (preferably highly caffeinated) beverage, get settled into your comfy chair, roll up your sleeves and starting analyzing that data. In order for you to make sense of those data elements, you require business context. This means you must also go talk with data's best friends - its stewards, analysts, and subject matter experts."

Especially internally, companies appear to be lacking a holistic approach to their data-driven initiatives. According to recent research from Deloitte Consulting, HR is a particular area of weakness - principal Josh Bersin recently said that only 14 percent of organizations are using "advanced or predictive analytics to solve talent challenges and to plan their future workforce initiatives."

There is definitely room for improvement in this area. Companies everywhere have the IT tools required to work with big data, but the next step is gaining the intellectual curiosity needed to fully understand it.

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