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'The Human Face of Big Data' spurs interest among businesses

In this Q&A, SAP's David Jonker discusses the film 'The Human Face of Big Data' and the role that big data applications will play in the digital transformation of businesses.

The Human Face of Big Data, a one-hour documentary film sponsored in part by SAP, is generating conversations about the nature of big data and its implications for society.

Although many organizations are just beginning to think about it, big data will play the lead role in the digital transformation of businesses, according to David Jonker, SAP's senior director of big data initiatives. The film recently aired on PBS and is being shown at screenings around the world.

In the following interview, Jonker discusses big data and what enterprises should think about as they begin to integrate big data applications into their business processes.

Is there a particular message about big data that the film The Human Face of Big Data addresses?

David Jonker, senior director of big data initiatives, SAPDavid Jonker

David Jonker: If you go back two or three years ago, we were trying to figure out how we generate conversations with our customers around big data. They were treating big data as a data problem for IT, and we were looking for new ways to show big data as a huge business opportunity, not just a technology "challenge." We were looking for ways to bring that conversation up, because the business folk had essentially newspaper-level knowledge of big data -- they read about it in an article somewhere. They had a basic idea of what big data is, and the IT guys had a very technical view of big data. And so how do you broker those groups to the table within an organization and provide a common framework or common language around understanding big data? We thought that the film was a fantastic way to make that happen.

Have those conversations resulted now because of the film?

Jonker: It has very much fulfilled that goal. Every time we've done a screening there's been a request for another screening. Either someone sees the film and decides that they have to show it to such and such executive in this department, or we need to bring it to this customer and so on. When we've done a lot of these events what we'll typically do is show the film and then immediately after we'll go straight into a Q&A. You can really tell whether they're on the technical side or the business side because they've internalized the way the film talks about big data and what it means for their company. This is where you want the conversation around big data to be. You want to ask these questions of "How do I make sense of it for my organization, or how do I use this for my organization to make digital transformation a reality?"

The Human Face of Big DataThe Human Face of Big Data

What questions do people have about big data?

Jonker: Even though people have been talking about big data for some time in the tech industry there are still many people that don't have a good or deep understanding of the human implications of big data. How is this transforming how I work, play and live? Often the questions start off very personal -- "What does this mean for me personally in my own personal life?" -- whether it's questions around privacy and what they do online and in terms of the information that's shared or what it means from a health perspective for them. Often those questions move over to "How do we leverage this within our company? What does this look like in terms of how we change the way we do business or interact with our customers?" The questions are typically not very deeply technical in nature, but when you understand how you want to use it, how you want to change the way you do business, then the technical comes out of that.  

How should businesses go about exploring a big data opportunity?

Jonker: One of the things that we've often said at SAP is that the right approach to pursuing a big data opportunity is to first define problems or use cases that tightly align with the business. You want to start with a business discussion, and typically when we've shown the film it sparks that conversation. The next step is to have a workshop where we use design thinking methodologies to uncover what the business imperatives are and where places are where big data might be applied. Once you have a good first use case or two that would have a real impact on your business, then it gets down to saying we have some idea of the insights that can be found within that, so you bring in a data science group to help figure that out. The next question is: How do you apply those insights to the day-to-day operations of your business? Then the last step is to determine what kind of technology stack or platform you need or what kind of configuration you need to actually implement that and scale that out within your organization. 

Are there any differences in approaches to big data between companies that already have SAP and those that don't?

Jonker: Probably the biggest difference is that companies that already run SAP have a comfort level with SAP so they will tend to work to build their big data solution around SAP's capabilities and platform. Whereas customers that don't really use SAP today will often be pulled in by the capabilities around HANA and what it can do around different areas.

Companies still have a long way to go in terms of getting to places of true big data maturity, but [there are] definitely a larger number of companies that are beyond 'What is big data?'
David Jonkersenior director of big data initiatives, SAP

Do you think companies are beginning to see value in big data's ability to solve business problems?

Jonker: Everything is a progression, and we've definitely seen progressions overall with digital transformation. Big data does not exist in isolation, but what big data and IoT do online as far as how they interact with customers at some level fits into an overall digital transformation of the organization and how they play within their industry. Companies still have a long way to go in terms of getting to places of true big data maturity, but [there are] definitely a larger number of companies that are beyond "What is big data?"

Are there industries leading the way in implementing big data applications?

Jonker: We've seen the use cases cross all over. In the film itself, it talks a lot about healthcare, so we're seeing a lot of interest and take-up in the healthcare field. Genome sequencing is really a big data problem where you're taking massive data sets and comparing them.

A lot of the use cases tend to be around "How do I do what I'm doing today, but just better?" For example, a company looks to adopt predictive maintenance, which in many ways is a big data challenge. I want to monitor the signals coming off my machinery and decide whether it's about to fail so that I can predict that and reduce downtime. In the retail space, it's about using big data to improve the customer relationship.

Do you think big data will change dramatically the way companies do business?

Jonker: There's lots of talk about radical changes in the business model, like big machinery manufacturers that talk about not selling the machinery, but turn it into something that you lease for life. Predictive maintenance enabled by big data then becomes something that they add to that. So there are definitely concepts out there, but that's an evolution in their business model that will take time. Most of what we see are companies saying they won't change the business model, but will change the way they interact with customers. So the changes have been somewhat incremental for companies up until this point. But big data is fundamental to digital transformation.

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