How a small business can profit from big data | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |

Is Big Data – the science of extracting useful business insights from large, disparate information stores – only for large companies with hefty IT staffs? Not at all. 

Chances are your business already collects significant amounts of data every day. It may be in spreadsheets, accounting programs, or word processing documents. Until fairly recently, mining that data required too much investment in software and highly skilled staffers for smaller businesses.

But the price of analytical tools is lower than ever, and while trained staff is a must, you don’t have to hire a PhD-sporting data scientist to get started on a big data project. "The history of information systems and business is that the rich tend to get richer," Tom Davenport, a professor at Babson College and a pioneer in helping companies understand Big Data, said during an interview with Inc. magazine. "There are big companies that could afford it, and so prospered more than the smaller ones." But now, he adds, "there's nothing that says you can't do this as a small business, too."

Consider the experience of Twiddy & Company, a family-owned business that manages 998 homes on the coast of North Carolina. Twiddy had amassed years of operational data inside spreadsheets, but suspected it could do more with it.

Twiddy settled on SAS's business analytics tools, which distilled the company's spreadsheets into a customizable format it could share with homeowners and contractors. That enabled the company to offer pricing recommendations pinpointed down to the week, on the basis of market conditions, seasonal trends, the size and location of a home, and more. Not only did Twiddy increase sales, it cut costs by 15 percent by eliminating invoice processing errors and automating service schedules, according to the article in Inc.

And there are many other ways that data can be funneled down from the arcane to the actionable with very approachable methods. Swipely, for instance, is often used in restaurants to help servers remember what a particular customer enjoys and make recommendations. The software drills down into individual orders and makes the information easily accessible when the same customer returns. Employees can also see in real time if an item has been selling especially well and recommend it to a customer, without having to wait for an end-of-week meeting to find out what’s hot. There are services like this for every aspect of business, including LogMeIn Rescue, which keeps a meticulous record of customer support sessions to help you track and study customer need.

If you’re planning on seeking out some help with implementing systems like these, it’s important to realize that “big data” isn’t necessarily a single skill or job title., a large job board for IT professionals, recently published a report on big data jobs, listing a number of key skills. They include analysis tools such as MapReduce, Hadoop, Cloudera, IBM Big Insights, Hortonworks or MapR, andprogramming skills in languages including Java, Scala, and Ruby, C++, to name a few.

As the U.S. economy continues to grow, it has gotten harder to find IT employees with exactly the right combination of skills. You might try working with the head of your IT group or an outside consultant to identify those employees who already have some big data skills, and encourage them to deepen their existing experience.