Throughout Monday’s plenary sessions, a key message from panelists was the need for directors to blend quantitative—harder—data with qualitative—softer—complements. For example, a focus on shareholder return but with a stakeholder view, the intersection of situational awareness and the ability to use intuition, or the need to harness qualitative data with application of context. In an interview with Jeffrey M. Cunningham, managing director and senior advisor of the National Association of Corporate Directors, RichRelevance Co-founder and CEO David Selinger shared how directors can bring big data into the boardroom.
To a room full of attendees admittedly dissatisfied with the level of technological literacy on their boards, Selinger relied on his expertise in the field of e-commerce data analytics and groundbreaking work leading the research and development arm of Amazon’s data mining and personalization team.
The Creation of Data
The amount of data created today, and available for mining, is outstanding. As of 2012, 2.5 exobytes of data are created in one day. In 2004, the Internet traffic per month was 1 exobyte. According to Selinger, this figure both exemplifies the risk and the opportunity big data presents. For example, the current iPhone has the ability to tell Apple Computer where its user is at all times. Businesses can use this data to pinpoint the best offers and products that consumers may be interested in.
“All the different data around a consumer is the same as 100 years ago,” said Selinger, “but our ability to harness it has fundamentally changed.” Even broader, big data has significantly altered the rules of business competition, especially in Silicon Valley. Governance, however, has not yet adapted to this shift and technological pace. “Boardrooms are not designed to handle situations in which the tenets of the organization are subject to fundamental restructuring in just five years.”
Lessons for Directors
So what can directors do to tackle the unavoidable big data trend? From his experience as an executive and a director, Selinger observed that “the best thing my boards have done is force themselves to ask themselves the hard questions.” In many cases, the hard questions are the simple ones. How does this new product or technology impact our business? “It is the willing to be somewhat pedantic, somewhat provocative.”