Big Data Isn’t That Important: It’s The Small Insights That Will Change Everything


Glen Tullman, Contributor

March 18, 2016

Big data has been the next big thing for several years. We’ve heard about the potential of big data and programs like Watson that will change everything. McKinsey, the Harvard Business Review and others have focused on big data’s potential to align on organizational strategy choices and guide high-level company decision-making. And yet, with each passing year, the only big thing from big data has been a big disappointment. It’s not that big data is bad, but by looking for the big wins, we risk losing the most exciting potential of big data: the very small actionable insights that are unique to each individual. The real future potential of big data isn’t in its capacity to be big, but rather in just how small it can get.

When we’re able to use big data to make decisions smaller, we can give individual consumers exactly what they want, when they want it. These are personal, simple and actionable answers that are delivered in the right context and happen to fit a wide range of consumer needs. This isn’t some wild-eyed vision of a far-out future but rather information that can and will impact how we live our lives every day. We’re already seeing the first stages from innovative companies that have figured out how to transform industries like transportation and media with these big-data-driven small insights. These companies — the Wazes and Pandoras of the world — are transforming their industries through the small insights they provide to individuals like you and me. These disruptions, while substantial, have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. And while better directions and better music may not transform the world, information driven by big data’s small insights is headed straight for the most important things we do, dramatically increasing our productivity, making our lives and the decisions we have to make easier and improving the quality of those decisions.

If big data and small insights are going to change the world, they will have to conform to four principles: Make It Personal, Make It Simple, Make It Context Aware and Make It Actionable. Let’s explore each one:

Make It Personal. Big data actually gets worse for consumers before it gets better. It just means more to sift through in consumers’ already cluttered and busy lives. But when the data is made small and truly personalized — relevant to us — consumers benefit enormously from big data’s power. Let’s look at the example of Pandora. Before Pandora, there were already many more songs available than most of us could sort through, and adding more wouldn’t have made much difference. After all, choosing between 300,000 songs or 400,000 songs is equally overwhelming. Pandora’s power is that it distills all that information into a personalized recommendation that matters most to you and is available just when you need it. All the time and effort of selecting the next song is removed and replaced by just the right personalized selection. All the data is simplified into exactly what you’re looking for without any effort on your part — it just happens automatically or “automagically.”

Make It Simple. If it’s not simple, all you’ve done is shift complexity to the consumer. More choice isn’t better unless it’s organized and easy. The most successful companies have simplified their interfaces to make them so smart that anyone could use them. Peter Lynch, the famous Fidelity investor, once said he invests in companies that any idiot could run because eventually any idiot would be running them. Similarly, you need an interface any idiot could use. Think Google Search: one box to fill in that sits in the middle of the screen, and if you spell your search term wrong, it suggests (based on sophisticated algorithms constantly updated by our own choices spun from big data) what you likely meant to type. Hard to think how it could be easier. This principle is best exemplified by an interaction I had with my son some years ago. He was playing his latest role-playing video game, and I decided it was time for me to learn. Like any good parent, I told him I was ready to learn the game and asked where the instructions were. He replied, “Dad, anything good doesn’t need instructions. You just play and it teaches you.” Now that’s great design and user interface. It caused me to think about my own business at the time. Could I meet his standard?

Make It Context Aware. Your phone rings. You answer and the caller says they can be there within five minutes to fix your flat tire — but you don’t have a flat tire. The call is more than an irritation. You want to know how they knew your cell number and why they interrupted your day, and you’re not at all happy. That is, unless you have a flat tire — then the call is a lifesaver. The exact same call with the exact same words. The difference is context. Get it right and you win. Get it wrong and your potential customer isn’t neutral. They actively dislike you. Context-aware technology goes beyond interacting directly with consumers. Sensor technology is used by Brad Keywell’s new startup, Uptake, which, working with customers like Caterpillar, allows technology to “call home” when the machines are about to break versus after they do, saving dollars, increasing productivity and taking the guesswork out of service. It’s all about context.

Make It Actionable. “Actionable” means it’s the right simple information at the right time, which makes the consumer’s next step clear. My favorite example of being actionable is the app Waze (bought by Google in 2013 for a reported $1.1 billion). Waze gives real-time traffic updates, shows you the best route to your destination and immediately updates that route if traffic conditions change. Waze takes complex information (combining mapping and traffic patterns) and breaks it down into clear, concise instructions the consumer can instantly act on. A full map of potential routes and evolving traffic is shortened to “Accident ahead: Exit at Route 62 North and turn right,” with turn-by-turn instructions. Consumers don’t have to sort through maps or judge a route by how much color-coded traffic there appears to be. Instead they can follow timely directions that tell them exactly what they need to know to drive. The “work” is done internally by Waze. What’s also amazing about Waze is that you are an integral part of the program. You are a node on the network, being monitored to contribute information like how quickly the traffic is moving (analyzed by the speed you are moving from point to point) largely without you knowing it.

So where do we go from here? We’ve seen big data’s small insights begin to revolutionize transportation and media along with pockets of other industries. At a recent gathering on innovation, a frustrated attendee asked, “When do we go from early adopters to the fat middle, where the real numbers are, and when do we address the tough problems?” I think we’re ready now. Health care and education come to mind — our two most important challenges and the two areas technology and business were told to avoid. Given the report cards of both industries and the costs, along with a push from government, that’s all about to change.

Imagine a health care industry where you received health information automatically on your mirror every morning, including the top personalized recommendations for you to be as healthy as possible that day. During the day, your watch or cell phone would remind you when to take your medications, check your blood sugar or use your inhaler based on GPS weather and pollen counts. A world where heart attacks are predicted and therefore prevented through real-time enzyme analysis, what we call “understanding your body’s vital narrative,” so you can get to the hospital before they happen. And imagine a world where there were fewer patients and more health consumers who were information-empowered.

And, if you were dealing with a chronic condition, imagine physicians who had the latest information on their patient panel, knowing whom they needed to see as opposed to who showed up at their office, saving everyone a lot of time. My Chevrolet Volt tells me when I need an oil change, based on sensors in the engine, my driving and braking patterns, and the oil levels. It’s a personalized watcher for my car’s health. Now imagine we treated people that intelligently … and that’s exactly what’s coming with remote monitoring.

Now switch gears and imagine an educational system where each student’s learning style is automatically analyzed and their textbook digitally transforms to help them learn the materials in the most successful way for them. Personal, Simple, Context Aware and Actionable. Where teachers have real-time updates on where students are succeeding and where and when they should double down and give a little more help. One of our portfolio companies, Modern Teacher, does just that, transforming the experience of teachers and students alike.

To be clear, getting this right isn’t easy. It’s not just about technology and devices or smart clouds filled with big data or the people who can deliver those answers. It’s the intelligent combination of all three, paired with real behavioral science that makes the best health, education and other important decisions both the easiest and the most logical to make. We can’t gift or bribe people to health but we have to empower them with small-bite insights that move them to better outcomes by choice.

This future is closer than we think. We are living in an amazing time where these small insights will quickly remove many of the decisions we have to make, not just for everyday things like finding our way or what music to listen to, but for the really challenging problems like staying healthy or how to become and stay educated (which won’t be just for our children anymore). This new world will also require dramatic shifts in roles. Physicians will have new tools to share the latest information and will become coaches and specialists, but in many cases their patients will know more about their diseases and what to do about them. Teachers will face the same challenges, as staying current with information will become increasingly difficult. They will be less knowledge workers than behavioral consultants and guides. These role changes may be more difficult and take more time than the technology itself.

If you take big data and turn it into bite-sized nuggets of information that consumers can act on, and if you make it personal, easy, context sensitive and, most of all, actionable, you will change the world in a billion small ways, which lead to the big change that has been so elusive.

This article was written by Glen Tullman from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Comment this article

Great ! Thanks for your subscription !

You will soon receive the first Content Loop Newsletter