Big data in action: definition, value, evolutions, benefits and context

Big data: an introduction and overview of the origins, applications, benefits and evolutions of big data as it becomes mainstream and part of a data-driven culture with a focus on outcomes instead of volume.

Big Data in a way just means “all data” (in the context of your organization’s ecosystem). And there is quite some data nowadays. The sheer volume of data we can tap into is dazzling and, looking at the growth rates of the digital data universe, it just makes you dizzy.

Originally, Big Data mainly was used as a term to refer to the size and complexity of data sets, as well as to the different forms of processing, analyzing and so forth that were needed to deal with those larger and more complex data sets and unlock their value. Most people used to look at the pure volume and variety perspective: more data, more types of data, more sources of data and more diverse forms of data. But data as such is meaningless, as is volume. What really matters is meaning and actionable information and actionable intelligence.

A guide to the essence of Big Data.

Big data

Big data: from volume to more volume but mainly to value

It’s easy to see why we are fascinated with volume and variety if you realize how much data there really is (the numbers change all the time, it truly is exponential) and in how many ways, formats and shapes it comes, from a variety of sources.

Getting a handle on Big Data and Fast Data can help organizations sense change within their markets and customer bases, and then do something about it.

Consider the data on the Web, transaction logs, social data and the data which gets extracted from gazillions of digitized documents. Consider several other types of unstructured data such as email and text messages, data generated across numerous applications, geolocation data and, increasingly, data from sensors and other data-generating devices and components in the realm of the Internet of Things.

Regardless of when you read this: if you think the volumes of data out there and in your organization’s ecosystem are about to slow down, think again. You can imagine how Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT), along with artificial intelligence, which is needed to make sense of all that data, only started to show a glimpse of their tremendous impact.

The information opportunity of Big Data

So, the term Big Data has a technology and processing background in an increasingly digital and unstructured information age where ever larger data sets became available and ever more data sources were added, leading to a real data chaos.

The Total Data market is expected to grow from just under $70bn in revenue in 2015 to $132bn in 2020 – 451 Research, 2016

However, just as information chaos is about information opportunity, Big Data chaos is also about opportunity and purpose. On top of that, the beauty of Big Data is that it doesn’t strictly follow the classic rules of data and information processes and even perfectly dumb data can lead to great results as Greg Satell explains on Forbes.

The mentioned increase of large and complex data sets also required a different approach in the ‘fast’ context of a real-time economy where rapid access to complex data and information matters more than ever. Just think about information-sensing devices that steer real-time actions, for instance. Or the increasing expectations of people in terms of fast and accurate experiences.

From big data to big insights and big decisions

Amid all these evolutions, the definition of the term Big Data, really an umbrella term, has been evolving, moving away from its original definition in the sense of controlling data volume, velocity and variety, as described in this 2001 META Group / Gartner document (PDF opens).

The renewed attention for Big Data in recent years was caused by a combination of open source technologies to store and manipulate data and the increasing volume of data as Timo Elliot writes. Add to that the various other 3rd platform technologies, of which Big Data (analytics is part) such as the cloud, mobile and additional ‘accelerators’ such as IoT and it becomes clear why Big Data gained far more than just some renewed attention but led to a broadening Big Data ecosystem as depicted below.

Big Data ecosystem - from data to decisions - IDC - click for full image
Big Data ecosystem – from data to decisions – IDC – click for full image

Today, and certainly here, we look at the business, intelligence, decision and value/opportunity perspective. From volume to value (what data do we need to create which benefit) and from chaos to mining and meaning, putting the emphasis on data analytics, insights and action.

A key question in that – predominantly unstructured- data chaos is what are the right data we need to achieve one or more of possible actions. The creation of value from Big Data – and of data and information overall – is a holistic one, driven by desired outcomes.

Big data is high-volume, -velocity and -variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making (Gartner).

With the Internet of Things happening and the ongoing digitization in many areas of society, science and business, the collection, processing and analysis of data sets and the RIGHT data is a challenge and opportunity for many years to come.

As such Big Data is pretty meaningless or better: as mentioned it’s (used) as an umbrella term. And as is the case with most “trending” umbrella terms, there is quite some confusion. Analyzing data sets and turning data into intelligence and relevant action is key.

Big Data: a consequence and a catalyst

While Big Data is often misunderstood from a business perspective (again, it’s about using the ‘right data’ at the right time for the right reasons) and there are debates regarding the use of specific data by organizations, it’s clear that Big Data is a logical consequence of a digital age.

At the same time it’s a catalyst in several areas of digital business and society. Just one example: Big Data is one of the key drivers in information management evolutions and of course it plays a role in many digital transformation projects and opportunities.

IBM’s 4 V’s of Big Data
IBM’s 4 V’s of Big Data

The importance of Big Data and more importantly, the intelligence, analytics, interpretation, combination and value smart organizations derive from a ‘right data’ and ‘relevance’ perspective will be driving the ways organizations work and impact recruitment and skills priorities. The winners will understand the Value instead of just the technology and that requires data analysts but also executives and practitioners in many functions that need to acquire an analytical, let alone digital, mindset. A huge challenge, certainly in domains such as marketing and management.

The Vs of Big Data: Adding Value

Value is an essential ‘V’ that should be added to the so-called three big data ‘V’s’.

IBM added a fourth one to that the list of the classic three V’s as you can see in the illustration above in times where reliable and right data at the right time increasingly matter in an era of ongoing digitization.


The sheer volume of data and information that gets created whereby we mainly talk infrastructure, processing and management of big data, be it in a selective way.

Big data concept
The original 3V’s – volume, velocity and variety – Shutterstock – Copyright: a-imager


Velocity is about where analysis, action and also fast capture, processing and understanding happen and where we also look at the speed and mechanisms at which large amounts of data can be processed for increasingly near-time or real-time outcomes, often leading to the need of fast data.


On top of the data produced in a broad digital context, regardless of business function, societal area or systems, there is a huge increase in data created on more specific levels. Variety is about the many types, being structured, unstructured and everything in between.


Veracity has everything to do with accuracy which from a decision and intelligence viewpoint becomes certainty and the degree in which we can trust upon the data to do what we need/want to do.


As said we add value to that as it’s about the goal, the outcome, the prioritization and the overall value and relevance created in Big Data applications, whereby the value lies in the eye of the beholder and the stakeholder and never or rarely in the volume dimension. Welcome to Big Data in Action.

Where do organizations focus their Big Data efforts on?

Obviously analytics are key. However, which Big Data sources are used to analyze and derive insights?

Where does Big Data come from - IBM
Where does Big Data come from – credit: IBM

In 2012, IBM and the Said Business School at the University of Oxford found that most Big Data projects at that time were focusing on the analysis of internal data to extract insights. Among the internal data sources the majority (88 percent) concerned analysis of transactional data, 73 percent log data and 57 percent emails.

Fewer businesses were busy looking at external big data, from outside their firewalls, which are mainly unstructured (as are most internal sources) and offer ample opportunities to gain insights too (e.g. sentiment analysis).

By now this picture probably has changed and of course it also depends in the goal and type of industry/application. With the network perimeters fading, the ongoing development of initiatives in areas such as the Internet of Things and increasing Big Data analysis maturity, we would like to see a detailed update indeed.

More about Big Data and its evolutions and applications

Smart data: beyond the volume and towards the reality

Big data is…big. With increasing volumes of mainly unstructured data comes a challenge of noise within the sheer volume aspect.

In order to achieve business outcomes and practical outcomes to improve business, serve customer betters, enhance marketing optimization or respond to any kind of business challenge that can be improved using data, we need smart data whereby the focus shifts from volume to value.

Learn more about smart data

Fast data: speed and agility for responsiveness

In order to react and pro-act, speed is of the utmost importance.

However, how do you move from the – mainly unstructured – data avalanche that big data really is to the speed you need in a real-time economy? Fast data is one of the answers in times when customer-adaptiveness is key to maintain relevance.

Learn more about fast data

Big data analytics: making smart decisions and predictions

As anyone who has ever worked with data, even before we started talking about big data, analytics are what matters.

Without analytics there is no action or outcome. While smart data are all about value, they go hand in hand with big data analytics. In fact, big data analytics, and more specifically predictive analytics, was the first technology to reach the plateau of productivity in Gartner’s Big Data hype cycle.

Learn more about big data analytics

Unstructured data: adding meaning and value

The largest and fastest growing form of information in the Big Data landscape is what we call unstructured data or unstructured information. Coming from a variety of sources it adds to the vast and increasingly diverse data and information universe.

To turn the vast opportunities in unstructured data and information (ranging from text files and social data to the body text of an email), meaning and context needs to be derived. This is what cognitive computing enables: seeing patterns, extracting meaning and adding a “why” to the “how” of Big Data.

Learn more about unstructured data

What makes (Big) data actionable?

Without intelligence, meaning and purpose data can’t be made actionable in the context of Big Data with ever more data/information sources, formats and types.

Moreover, there are several aspects of data which are needed in order to make it actionable at all. Whether it concerns Big Data or any other type of data, actionable data for starters is accurate: the data elements are correct, legible and valid. A second aspect is accessibility, which comes with several modalities as well. Other dimensions include liquidity, quality and organization.

More on what makes data actionable

Big data in customer service

Today’s customers expect good customer experience and data management plays a big role in it.

In the increasing Big Data reality regarding customer service and the contact center, making sense of data from a customer service and customer experience perspective requires an integrated and omni-channel approach whereby the sheer volume of information and data sources regarding customers, interactions and transactions, needs to be turned in sense for the customer who expects consistent and seamless experiences, among others from a service perspective.

More on Big Data and customer service

Big Data: order from chaos

There is a bunch of infographics, charts and data on Big Data.

While, as mentioned, the predicitions often have change by the time they are published, below is a rather nice infographic from the people at Visual Capitalist which, on top of data, also shows some cases of how Big Data gets used in real life and nicely illustrates a few other aspects of Big Data such as some sources of Big Data and some challenges.

Check out the ‘creating order from chaos’ infographic below or see it on Visual Capitalist for a wider version.

Big Data - creating order from chaos - source Visual Capitalist
Big Data – creating order from chaos – source Visual Capitalist


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Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: Melpomene – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.