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Big Data…it helped map the human genome but can it help your L&D department?


We all love to appear to be at the cutting edge of new thinking.  “New”, “improved”, “advanced”: look at almost any marketing information for any product or service, from toothpaste to management consultancy and you’ll find these claims.

Increasingly we all expect this newness, the improvement and the advances to be based on some nice solid ‘science’, so we want to see statistics and data to back up the claims.  Traditionally, most statistics of national or international magnitude are created by using a small sample and extrapolating.  This clearly is open to interpretation (or manipulation, depending on your viewpoint).  Straight ‘factual data’ at a national or international level was always several years out-of-date.

Now, however, we have “Big Data”; information that is solid, actual, factual data, not sampled and extrapolated, and produced in quick, if not real, time.   This has come about partially due to the increasing power of computers; “The world's technological per-capita capacity to store information has roughly doubled every 40 months since the 1980s” according to a 2011 report by Hilbert & Lopez.  Another factor in the rise of Big Data is the ubiquitous nature of computers; since a ‘cash register’ or ‘till’ is now a computer, your supermarket knows what you, and every other loyalty-card carrying or non-cash paying customer, buys on a regular basis.  Tesco has 16 million Clubcard holders in the UK alone (and another 27 million globally) and this means that they know exactly what every one of those people buys. Every week.  Now that is BIG Data.

As you’d expect of something new, there some a degree of disagreement over what ‘Big Data’ actually is; one camp is of the opinion that Big Data is solely the massive data set output that is generated by the likes of the Tesco Clubcard, or is required to map the human genome.  The other camp looks at Big Data as being the capacity, for instance, of a desktop computer in an office to recognise all the keystrokes entered into it by a particular user. Big Data could be the capacity of that system to  

·       analyze every action the user makes and

·       sense that the user requires support and

·       identify the appropriate support tool right away,

·       and provide it

all within the task’s workflow.

What both camps agree on is that the extra computing power and their ubiquitous nature provide a massive increase in the ability of organisations to use Big Data to help them. 

How else can Big Data help L&D practitioners?

Big Data can provide information on trends in consumer behaviour.  This helps training designers to formulate the messages going out to customer-facing staff. It may also help to define and refine the way in which those messages are disseminated.  Big Data may also help sellers of L&D services to identify trends in adoption of new technologies thus allowing them to encourage their prospects to follow the early adopters.

Thanks to the speed of the internet, Big Data is fresh and readily available.   There are data mining and data harvesting companies whose systems automatically search the internet and the press hourly for up-to-the minute business intelligence which is then sorted into appropriate sections.  For example, outplacement and career consultants can provide job hunters with on-demand data digests relating not just to job adverts (too obvious) but also to this other information of value:

·       Who has just won a big contract (they may be looking for staff or consultancy support)

·       Who has announced that they will soon be recruiting on the basis of business won or held (quick, get in an application before the rush starts)

·       Which industries are growing (good for a wider campaign)

·       Which regions are job creators (now we can think of moving location at our behest)

·       Which organisations are moving to new premises (opportunities as some of the staff won’t move with them)

Canny training service sales people can access this type of information for a small monthly cost and have it configured in a way that suits their needs.

Big Data and the business intelligence it provides is already there and easy to get.

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