Back in the mid-nineties every PC in your organisation potentially contained software that could destroy your company overnight. Not a virus, nor a Trojan: it was called the spreadsheet.
The spreadsheet was – and still is – broken by design. The vital raw data it crunches may be exposed to view, concealed behind the cells or parachuting in from somewhere outside the spreadsheet.
Mixed up in the same visible or invisible cells is the business logic used in its calculations. And unless rigorously locked down, each copy of every spreadsheet in circulation can be individually "improved" by its user, intentionally or by accident.
But the output from the spreadsheet, on the screen for the local worker, or in a paper report sent up to the boardroom, looked really nice, really authoritative. Which, of course, was the problem.
Today's tsunami of data input, and the changing requirement to get output directly to the decision makers in the field, has largely put paid to that kind of spreadsheet. Tom Nolle of Cimi Corp remembers the days when vital decision making depended on "ten thousand spreadsheets within the worker population".
Today we try to pull that all together to get a handle on data integrity. The subject is one of Nolle's specialities. Cimi Corp is a strategic consulting company that assesses trends and tries to build a picture of the future of telecommunications, media, and technology (TMT).
The 'future' of business analytics
In a web-based teleconference under the aegis of Internet Evolution, Nolle maps out the changing landscape of business analytics. "There was a time when business intelligence meant sending the information to the boardroom," he says. "Today it means sending the information to everyone in the company that has to make a decision. And they need the data when they make the decision – not some time in anticipation, and not when it's too late."
What data? There's all the traditional stuff your in-house data warehouses have been collecting for decades – raw material and output figures, customer satisfaction scores, employee churn per region, cost of sales... This data is abstracted, digested and projected in ways that probably have to be evolving rapidly as your business changes. But now there's new data to add to the mix: valuable demographic and other market information coming in over the internet.
Dave Suedkamp, head of everything for IBM's market research services, chips in: "Facebook, Twitter, news feeds and other social media, message boards, forums..." This new inundation from the Cloud can't be ignored by businesses trying to make a buck in the 21st century, he says. To make sense of the world you need to digest it all.
Ishan Sehgal tweets, in and out of his job as program director of software as a service for predictive analytics at SPSS, a company IBM acquired in 2009. "The amount of social data out there is increasing beyond measurement," he tells the web conference. "The overall amount of data currently stored in the world is estimated to exceed one zettabyte." Que? Count the number of grains of sand in a thousand worlds like ours, and there's your zettabyte.
If you're wondering about the weight of IBM input here, it's worth noting the Internet Evolution website is "sponsored" by the company. But there's not too much in the way of marketing hype in this particular conference. Inevitably a fog of abstract jargon hangs over the occasion, but there are some possible insights to be gained.