Big Data Success Starts With Well-Defined Business Problem

(This post also appears on our successor blog, The Analysights Data Mine).

Lots of companies are jumping on the “Big Data” bandwagon; few of them, however, have given real thought to how they will use their data or what they want to achieve with the knowledge the data will give them.  Before reaping the benefits of data mining, companies need to decide what is really important to them.  In order to mine data for actionable insights, technical and business people within the organization need to discuss the business’ needs.

Data mining efforts and processes will vary, depending on a company’s priorities.  A company will use data very differently if its aim is to acquire new customers than if it wants to sell new products to existing customers, or find ways to reduce the cost of servicing customers.  Problem definition puts those priorities in focus.

Problem definition isn’t just about identifying the company’s priorities, however.  In order to help the business achieve its goals, analysts must understand the constraints (e.g., internal privacy policies, regulations, etc.) under which the company operates, whether the necessary data is available, whether data mining is even necessary to solve the problem, the audience at whom data mining is directed, and the experience and intuition of the business and technical sides.

What Does The Company Want to Solve?

Banks, cell phone companies, cable companies, and casinos collect lots of information on their customers.  But their data is of little value if they don’t know what they want to do with it.  In the banking industry, where acquiring new customers often means luring them away from another bank,  a bank’s objective might be to cross-sell, or get its current depositors and borrowers to acquire more of – its products, so that they will be less inclined to leave the bank.  If that’s the case, then the bank’s data mining effort will involve looking at the products its current customers have and the order and manner in which the customer acquired those products.

On the other hand, if the bank’s objective is to identify which customers are at risk of leaving, its data mining effort will examine the activity of departing households in the months leading up to their defection, and compare it to those households it retained.

If a casino’s goal is to decide on what new slot machines to install, its data mining effort will look at the slot machine themes its top patrons play most and use that in its choice of new slot machines.

Who is the Audience the Company is Targeting?

Ok, so the bank wants to prevent customers from leaving.  But do they want to prevent all customers from leaving?  Usually, only a small percentage of households account for all of a bank’s profit; many banking customers are actually unprofitable.  If the bank wants to retain its most profitable customers, it needs only analyze that subgroup of its customer base.  The bank’s predictions of its premier customers’ likelihood to leave based on a model developed on all its customers would be highly inaccurate.  In this case, the bank would need to build a model only on its most profitable customers.

Does the Problem Require Data Mining?

Data mining isn’t always needed.  Years ago, when I was working for a catalog company, I developed regression models to predict which customers were likely to order from a particular catalog.  When a model was requested for the company’s holiday catalog, I was told that it would go to 85 percent of the customer list.  When such a large proportion of the customer base – or the entire customer base for that matter – is to receive communication, then a model is not necessary.  More intuitive methods would have sufficed.

Is Data Available?

Before a data mining effort can be undertaken, the data necessary to solve the business problem must be available or obtainable.  If a bank wants to know the next best product to recommend to its existing customers, it needs to know the first product these customers acquired, how they acquired it, the length of time between their acquisition of their second product, then their third product, and so forth. The bank also needs to understand what products its customers acquired simultaneously (such as a checking account and a credit card), current activity with those products, and the sequence of product acquisition (e.g., checking account first, savings account second, certificate of deposit third, etc.).

It is extremely important that analysts consult both those on the business side and the IT department about the availability of data.  These internal experts often know what data is collected on customers, where it resides, and how it is stored.  In many cases, these experts may have access to data that doesn’t make it into the enterprise’s data warehouse.  And they may know what certain esoteric values for fields in the data warehouse mean.  Consulting these experts can save analysts a lot of time in understanding the data.

Under What Constraints Does the Business Operate?

Companies have internal policies regulating how their operation; are subject to regulations and laws governing the industries and localities in which they operate; and also are bound by ethical standards in those industries and locations.

Often, a company has access to data that, if used in making business decisions, can be illegal or viewed as unethical.  The company doesn’t acquire this data illegally; the data just cannot be used for certain business practices.

For example, I was building customer acquisition models for a bank a few years ago.  The bank’s data warehouse had access to summarized credit score statistics by block groups, as defined by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.  However, banks are subject to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a 1977 law that was passed to prevent banks from excluding low- to moderate-income neighborhoods in their communities from lending decisions.  Obviously, credit scores are going to be lower in lower-income areas. Hence, under CRA guidelines, I could not use the summarized credit statistics to build a model for lending products.  I could, however, use those statistics for a model for deposit products; for post campaign analysis, to see which types of customers responded to the campaign; and also to demonstrate compliance with the CRA.

In addition, the bank’s internal policies did not allow the use of marital status in promoting products.  Hence, when using demographic data that the bank purchased, I had to ignore the field, “married” when building my model.  In cases like these, less direct approaches can be used.  The purchased data also contained a field called “number of adults (in the household).  This was totally appropriate to use, since it did not necessarily mean that a household with two adults was a married-couple household.

Again, the analyst must consult the company’s business experts so it can understand these operational constraints.

Are the Business Experts’ Opinions and Intuition Spot-On?

It’s often said that novices make mistakes out of ignorance and veterans make mistakes out of arrogance.  The business experts have a lot of experience in the company and a great deal of intuition, which can be very insightful.  However, they can be wrong too.  With every data mining effort, the data must be allowed to tell the story.  Does the data validate what the experts say?  For example, most checking accounts are automatically bundled with a debit card; a bank’s business experts know this; and the analysis will often bear this out.

However, if the business experts say that a typical progression in a customer’s banking relationship starts with demand deposit accounts (e.g., checking accounts) then consumer lending products (e.g., auto and personal loans), followed by time deposits (e.g., savings accounts and certificates of deposit), does the analysis confirm that?

 

Problem definition is the hardest, trickiest, yet most important, prerequisite to getting the most out of “Big Data.”  By knowing what the business needs to solve, analysts must also consider the audience the data mining effort is targeting; whether data mining is necessary; the availability of data and the conditions under which it may be used; and the experience of the business experts.  Effective problem definition begets data mining efforts that produce insights a company can act upon.

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One Response to “Big Data Success Starts With Well-Defined Business Problem”

  1. Company Practices Can Cause “Dirty” Data | Insight Central Says:

    […] did this happen? Well, as discussed in the prior post on problem definition, I consulted the company’s “data experts.” I learned that the birthdate field was a required […]

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