The business landscape is being shaped by data as never before. Data is growing in volume, variety and velocity. The sheer magnitude of data being produced is staggering.

Everyone is talking about big data but do executives and their subordinates really understand what it is exactly or how they can transform their organizations and drive business performance.

Sadly enough, most companies do not know what to do with the data they have, much less the new forms of data.

In 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed 752 global executives across a broad range of sectors to learn how high-performing companies are leveraging big data and through SAS sponsorship released a report, Big Data: Lessons from the Leaders.

The report details great insights and lessons on how these leaders have learned and managed to positively exploit data, secure the right talent, leverage social media and web-tracking analytics, and demonstrate the strong link between financial performance and well-defined data management strategy.

I recommend reading the full report. Highlights of the research include:

There is a strong link between financial performance and effective use of big data. The survey findings suggest that companies should fully exploit the data they are collecting.

High-performing companies are effectively using big data to improve company performance across many areas, with strategic decision-making and operational efficiency highlighted most frequently.

For example, retailers are using data generated by loyalty cards to better understand customers and insurers are now routinely analyzing large data sets in order to predict claims, root out fraud and set prices.

Companies become successful at exploiting data by focusing on business priorities. In order to transform their businesses and become successful, executives and their subordinates must place big data at the heart of the business.

According to the survey, 59% of executives from leading high-performing companies have placed a high rating on data usage in all the business areas.

To exploit big data, businesses should start by prioritizing the challenges or problems they want to solve and then build an appropriate data management strategy around those objectives.

In other words, businesses should start by agreeing on a focus and with that focus in place, prioritize, manage and process data accordingly.

Companies lacking a focused data strategy are most likely to under-perform and suffer than their more successful rivals.

Talent matters as much as technology. It is tempting to think that technology alone can transform a business.

One of the findings from the global survey is that companies are still facing the challenge of securing analytic talent that possess knowledge of the sector the company operates and the right skills required to work with large data sets.

To deal with the problem of analytic skills shortages, executives must ensure that analytic thinking is not confined to the IT department.

Managers across all parts of the organization should be thinking about how data can improve performance and, with the help of data experts, transform those thoughts into actions.

Some organizations are connecting data professionals in academia with their businesses in order to tap in their knowledge and expertise.

Social media analytics and web-tracking technologies can transform the way business collect data about customers. Data can do many things for the company. For example, a well-defined data-driven approach can be used to improve the efficiency of the supply chains, guide marketing efforts and spur innovative thinking about the customer experience.

The evolution of social media networks has led to an explosion in “unstructured” data such as comments and opinions posted by customers that can provide insights into how a company is viewed.

Through the use of web-tracking technologies and the analysis of user-generated content on social networks, companies are better placed to devise more effective methods for enticing customers away from rivals and achieve dramatic improvements in revenues and bottom line.

Evidence of the advance of data is everywhere. A company should know that exploitation of data is critical to drive business performance and achieve a leading competitive edge over its rivals.

If the company fails to exploit data, a rival will gain competitive edge by doing so. A well-thought-out data strategy is essential, as is a focus on acquiring employees who can combine sophisticated data skills with knowledge of the competitive landscape.

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