Big (Data) KC

Big Data and Big Science are establishing solid foundations in this region. The effects on both business and health-care delivery will be transformative.

Stephen Hardy’s company specializes in helping cities gather, analyze and act on large data sets. It’s not likely he knows much about your specific business, but nonetheless has some insights for you that should be at once informative—and disturbing. And the older you are, the closer you are to a long-envisioned sale of your company, the more concerned you should be.

“Without question, the businesses that will succeed over the next decade will use data to inform their practice and build better, stronger businesses,” says Hardy, the CEO at Kansas City tech firm, mySidewalk. “You are either doing it or not, using the technology to gain a competitive advantage.”

That guidance, of course, was true five, even 10 years ago. It’s perhaps more relevant today. The underlying technology, of course, changes daily, but another dynamic has come into play with the passing years. By some estimates, fully half of the small and mid-size companies in the U.S. will be sold before 2025 as their Baby Boomer owners seek an exit into retirement.

Your take-away: Business brokers say now is the time to be positioning your company for its highest possible valuation when you’re ready to pull the trigger on a sale. And if Big Data isn’t part of your operations, but should be, you’ll be leaving considerable amounts of cash on the table.

Conversely, buyers who understand how data can scale up an operation may be able to reap significant rewards by acquiring firms that have ignored the potential of larger-scale data analytics.

“I think that’s right,” Hardy says, but the potential doesn’t stop there. “A lot of acquisitions will take advantage of better data-analysis capabilities. Something like just having clean data makes you a better acquisition target, even if you’re not using that data.”

There’s more to the way Big Data is impacting life in Kansas City than business valuations. Health-care providers and researchers, through both their own large data sets and through collaborations with other institutions are collaborating in what you might call Big Science. Their work is changing the way medical professionals evaluate treatments and deliver care, on a scale this region hasn’t seen before.

Before any company dives into Big Data efforts, there’s a mental checklist to work through.

“At the speed in which we need to make decisions, you have to start with the need,” advises Matt Hertig, co-founder of Alight Analytics. “Speed to make decisions in any business  continues to increase. The pull or drag on their ability to do so is, ‘Are these the right decisions?’”

In the marketing/sales space, he says, more than ever, that question is around value: “How do I understand the value of my spend and how does that drive growth of the business?” Hertig said.
“You have access to more data than ever; how do you get your hands around it?”

Implicit in that question is the need for more companies, especially small ones, to reconsider elements of their cost structure. “Getting your hands around it” represents a new staffing challenge. If you’re going to play in this field, you’ll need data-analysis skills. There’s no other way around it to extract information like predictive analytics on your customer base: Who’s buying? When? How often? Who’s stopped buying? Why?

“To have high-quality data analytics, you need high-quality information architecture,” says Raj Nair of Yotabites, a Lenexa firm that focuses specifically on Big Data architecture. Among the key elements there are tools to integrate social platforms and incorporate real-time data, he said.

“Then, the next maturity level is to start deploying the solutions on top of that architecture,” Nair said. “That can be anything that drives business outcomes, the application of machine learning on top of data.”

John Thomson, co-founder of the government-payments Web site PayIt, welcomes every business ow-ner out there to his world. “Every business is a tech and data business, whether you know or not, because there are answers inside data about clients and customers and process inside that information,” Thomson said. “You need people who can ask the right questions of the data to get the right business answers, and those people are highly valuable, regardless of category, industry or size of a business.”

He, too, calls this a paradigm shift for the way small companies budget for staff. “We have data science people in lots of functions, because we see them as a differentiator, and not a cost-center,” Thomson said. “That gets to the culture of a business, how they view those things.”

OK, so you’ve established a need for a new skill set in your company. Where do you turn?

“Talent is an ongoing challenge for this industry, for sure,” Hertig said. “We have to grow a lot of our own talent, bring in people with basic skill sets of understanding of data, then teach them with tools like Tableau and how a platform works.”

Kansas City is not a huge market, so there’s no huge depth of business-intelligence talent yet, Hertig says. “But what we do have is a pretty good depth of SQL talent, and database SQL talent. We draw from that, teach them and coach them up. It’s an ongoing challenge, but you have to find the right talent so you can grow.”

The first person you should hire, he said, is the analyst capable of finding and telling the right stories with the data. “You need to make good decisions and they need to be faster, so the critical component is someone who can help you understand the data. “

Effective change, Nair said, is all about creating a new company culture. “You are essentially shifting the mindset of the company to become a data-driven culture,” he said. “A lot of education needs to happen for people to understand how you turn into a data-driven enterprise. But data is one of your most strategic assets.”