OPINION: Warehouses of Data Are No Use without Control

Article excerpt

Here's an entertaining and instructive story that highlights just how easy it is to let too much data prevent you from seeing the wood for the trees. It concerns Ben & Jerry's, the ice-cream maker now part of Unilever.

Last spring it began to record a noticeable rise in complaints about its popular Cherry Garcia brand; the majority were about the lack of cherries in the product.

The data experts swung into gear, analysing the brand from every aspect, from supply chain hiccups to manufacturing glitches. They found nothing wrong. Until someone noticed that the answer was literally staring them in the face: the picture on the packaging was not of the ice cream, but its frozen yoghurt variety - which has more cherries. Change the package and problem solved - but at what expense of time and resources?

This is recounted in the latest edition of Fortune magazine in a look at the growing number of companies hoping the use of modern business intelligence software will help them find the right answers in their vast warehouses of information. It's reckoned that big retailers hold the equivalent of 320 miles of bookshelves worth of the stuff.

Drowning in data and trying to use technology to tame it isn't new, of course. But as the tools become more sophisticated, there's too much of a temptation to make data the key component for critical strategic decisions at the expense of common sense and experience.

Maybe this isn't so surprising. In today's complex world, it's safer and easier to blame the data if things go wrong. But the irony is that relying too heavily on data means they probably will. The US Date Warehousing Institute estimates that data quality problems cost US businesses alone more than dollars 800bn (pounds 511bn) a year, with most executives oblivious to what it calls the data quality lacerations that are slowly bleeding companies to death. …