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Leaders who ignore big data are falling behind

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

For those who haven't recognized that a new day of data is upon us, it's time to get serious.

Trillions of bits of structured and unstructured data are being created, shared, stored and analyzed right now. To be clear, if you're a leader without a strategy for exploiting big data – turning your data into insights and actions – you are already falling behind your competitors.

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Your competitors are redesigning their businesses to be more agile, transparent and efficient than yours. They are able to make smarter, faster decisions, expand market share and become more relevant to their customers.

You can either let their insights shut you down or start using data to forge your own path of competitive advantage.

Data as the 21st century natural resource

Big data is to the 21st century what steam power was to the 18th century, electromagnetism to the 19th century and nuclear and fossil fuels to the 20th century. It is a foundational development, a new natural resource that exists everywhere in our environment.

Consider that there are one trillion interconnected, intelligent objects and organisms today. More people have cell phones today than have running water. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populous country in the world. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, where one billion visitors each month watch six billion hours of video.

As a result of all of this instrumentation and interconnection, every day we are generating 2.5 billion gigabytes of data. Eighty per cent of all the data in the world has been created in the past two years and 80 per cent of that data is unstructured. It's a video, audio recording, social media post, map, satellite image, x-ray or something else that doesn't fit neatly into a spreadsheet row or column.

Get structured with your unstructured data

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Early adopters who use big data for business insights are already looking ahead to the next thing it enables – cognitive computing.

These are systems that learn, interacting naturally with people to do more than either people or machines could do on their own. They help human experts make better decisions by finding the real value in all of this data. They can also predict events and behaviours from it.

Consider the capability of that data to optimize the care of newborns, especially premature infants or babies born with health problems. Information like fractional changes in temperature, blood chemistry, respiration and pulse not only tells medical staff what is happening with enhanced precision, but also what to anticipate next and what custom treatment will likely be most effective.

Predicting and mapping the cancer treatment by analyzing longitudinal (or "long periods of historical data") treatment data and cross-referencing it to the genetic make-up of individual patients can be used to find the best-case, patient-specific treatment.

Survival in the age of big data

Leading companies already exploit their data from widely varied sources. This includes structured data from sales and operations, unstructured data from mobile devices, social networks and the instruments from the physical world. They are using insights from this data to better understand what their customers want and to make smarter predictions about their future behaviours.

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This week I learned that my seven-year old son is not being taught cursive writing at school. I was surprised – and even a little annoyed. I realized that writing that way is no longer relevant. The same shift in relevance is happening with computing. We are entering a new era of computation. It's a new era of human commerce, and even more broadly, of human capability.

Leaders will either leverage data, insights and actions to thrive and compete – or they won't. If they do, they will succeed, and if they don't, they can put the "Out of Business" sign on the door as they turn out the lights (hand-written in cursive, of course.)

Warren Tomlin (@warrentomlin) is an IBM partner and the leader of its Canadian interactive, Web/portal, mobile, contact centre and social business practices (@smarterplanetca).

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