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Big data works only for those who hype it

It's probably prudent, in the absence of recent research on big data's effect on company performance, to be agnostic about it

Leonid Bershidsky | Bloomberg 

technology, AI, machine learning, VR, AR, big data, artificial intelligence
Buying the mostly groundless big data hype is, unfortunately, often the flip side of a healthy concern with privacy

Margrethe Vestager, the Europen Union’s competition commissioner challenging tech giants on several fronts, has opened another: “

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, she singles out data as an important competitive advantage that should be more seriously considered in antitrust reviews and investigations. Buying the mostly groundless hype is, unfortunately, often the flip side of a healthy concern with privacy.

“In some areas, these data are extremely valuable,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “They can foreclose the market — they can give the parties that have them immense business opportunities that are not available to ” She added that Google, and even German carmaker BMW could have an unfair advantage over competitors because of the data they’re accumulating and the way these data help them reach customers and cut costs.

That view is an extension of the concept in which we pay for free services with our data, which companies can easily convert into — for example, by precisely targeting commercial offerings through advertisements. In reality, though, the hype has been easier to convert into cash than the actual data.

In 2011, & Co. put out a report hyping up big data’s business potential, predicting it would become “a key basis of competition.” The company said retailers could increase their operating margins by 60 per cent if they could harness its potential. It would be a direct result of microtargeting and “the automatic fine-tuning of inventories and pricing in response to real-time in-store and online sales.”

In December 2016, returned to those predictions in another report, saying U.S. retail had only realised between 30 and 40 per cent of big data-related potential due to a “lack of analytical talent” and “siloed data within companies.” Even that, however, is a generous assessment. The US retail industry’s operational margins are slightly lower today than they were in 2011. Even Walmart, praised by as an early adopter of big data-based in the 2016 report, hasn’t seen any discernible increase in operating margin in recent years.

If as used by and really helped manufacturers and retailers, retail sales in the countries where these companies are especially strong would have registered steep increases. Nothing of the sort happened. As and swelled, US retail sales growth has been steady — and below record levels.

Data-driven revolution? Haven’t heard of it

This, of course, is not a perfectly scientific argument against the hype. Other factors, including increased competition and economic conditions, could have compensated for data-driven increases in retail profitability and volumes. So it’s probably prudent, in the absence of recent research on big data’s effect on company performance, to be agnostic about it. There’s no evidence that the effect exists on a macro level — and none that it has significantly benefited specific companies, except the ones that specifically sell their expertise, such as and

It’s intuitively clear that analysing customer data should bring business advantages. A 2014 study sponsored by found that retailers generally agree with this. That doesn’t mean that as we know it today — information about people’s online habits, bits and pieces of purchase histories, social network posts — confers any major advantage on firms that try to use it.

© 2017 Bloomberg

First Published: Sun, January 07 2018. 22:38 IST