Big Data

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Earlier this week, I was part of a panel with Chris McNulty and moderated by Marc Anderson at the Gilbane Conference in Boston talking about “Successful SharePoint Adoption Strategies. Despite being on the program, I found myself feeling a bit out of place at Gilbane. The program seemed to be targeted to larger shops than ours. I always feel that you can take something away from any good presentation, and there were many good presentations, so I did my best, but I want to talk about one where I felt like I was about to be tossed onto the island of misfit toys. One of the keynote presentations was given by Christer Johnson from IBM, and he was talking about advanced analytics and Big Data. Now with just over 600 policies, nobody is ever going to accuse me of knowing anything about big data, but I seriously wonder if I am really all that alone.

One of the facts that Christer referenced several times was that there are over 361 billion gigabytes of messages floating around the universe. What caught my attention was the fact that he chose to express the quantity as 361 billion gigabytes. He did briefly mention that he was really talking about Exabytes, but nobody understands what an Exabyte is. Then it occurred to me, nobody can really comprehend the concept of 361 billion gigabytes of messages either. We are used to messages in the 140 character to one page of text range. Saying “361 billion gigabytes of messages” to me is like Ebenezer Scrooge saying “tens of thousands of a £100 notes” to Bob Cratchit. Bob would have known about £100 notes, but as my good friend David Pennington pointed out, they would have had a “mythical quality” associated with them. I know what a gigabyte is, but I can’t picture the point during the day/week/month when my message traffic exceeds one. Now, in fairness to Mr. Johnson, his keynote was fascinating and thought provoking, but clearly, there will never be an IBM “Let’s Build a Smarter Planet” ad featuring our results.

So the cynic in me is asking the optimist in me, “What did you get out of that keynote?” Well, I focused on the portion of his presentation where he was talking about the analytics around Kraft Vegemite. The early results pointed to a product that was perhaps too salty. Additional analytics revealed that, more than for any other Kraft product, people talking about Vegemite, used the word “love” in their messages. Mr. Johnson went on to talk about how important it is to take feedback (messages) in their proper context, and how we shouldn’t rely too heavily on the apparent relationship between individual metrics and customer satisfaction. That is a very important lesson, and one that scales to any size shop. If I made business decisions based on SharePoint’s metrics, I would tear down our Internet-facing server. The traffic on that server is miniscule, but the quality of the content being moved around is what is important. I don’t receive feedback on a continuous basis, certainly not gigabytes of message traffic, but I did receive two “Thank You” emails this week. Two satisfied customers; that’s a metric that I value.

I told Marc that I wouldn’t be blogging about our Gilbane session today, but I think that both he and Chris would be supportive of the other lesson I am taking from the sessions I attended (including ours). I am trying to build out our SharePoint farm more for a quality user experience than to garner more and more hits. As Chris said, “if you wanted hits, you could lock everyone into SharePoint main page when they launch their browser” – not something that would score any points for me among my peers. To a certain degree, we simply ignore the quantity portion of the quantity/quality ratio. Obviously, if we built out a page that nobody ever used, I would question the value of that page, but if we build a page that is seldom used but satisfies a business requirement each time, I’m good with that. I probably can’t build a case for that page on ROI, but I think we have to consider the cost of not having the service to offer. I may not have Exabytes of messages to process, but If I can’t send, or can’t deliver, or in 10 years if I can’t find the important messages that we do have, I’ve failed at my job.