Today is an extraordinary time for businesses. The newfound ability to collect data, process it, and extract real business value from it has categorically changed how business is done over just the last few years. The new paradigm has opened up a world of opportunity. Matching and complementing this opportunity, however, there is risk as well. In not recognizing opportunities, or not being prepared for necessary changes, this new standard can also hurt businesses.

The effect of data can be seen in the way that financial institutions increasingly view themselves as information-based companies. Money itself has been more information than physical for some time, but financial institutions now use information far more extensively than just keeping the books. They use this information — or data — to market more effectively, gaining new customers while avoiding losses due to fraud or attrition. The same can be said of telecommunications operators and health care providers. Some of these businesses even establish lucrative sidelines, selling heavily-aggregated data directly to companies who want to understand how people are moving and thinking.

What’s new and why

The new focus on data means far more than just extra charts and glitzier reports. It isn’t just more of what has made business intelligence a corporate staple for years. The idea behind business intelligence is that data is summarized and visualized so that people can understand it and make better decisions. Such evidence-based facilitation of human decisions will continue, but this approach doesn’t scale very well given any rational limits on the number and capacity of decision-makers. Where this has to go is to have humans set a strategy that is then implemented by computers, who actually make the decisions according to that strategy. To draw an analogy to business itself, humans have to get out of making decisions on a retail basis and get into making wholesale decisions (i.e. strategies) by telling computers what is needed generally rather than specifically.

But what does that really mean?

This process of transformation is real and will probably radically affect your business. To be prepared for it, business owners, managers, and executives need to understand some of the nuts and bolts about how data can be used. The best way to do this is to invest time in learning a catalogue of the shapes of data-driven businesses. Success won’t be the result of a small fix here or there. It will be a result of a comprehensive re-thinking of how your business works and how data could be valuable, either to enhance a current business or to add entirely new lines.

For example, simply knowing about all the physical things involved in your business can make a big difference to execution. For retailers, where exactly are all the items in your supply chain? Can you build models that will predict changes of that supply chain? Can you use knowledge of how people navigate a store, how they interact with products, and how environmental factors like the weather affect their choices? If you can answer these questions affirmatively, you can tilt a formerly level playing field whichever way you want.

This guide will have dedicated sections on enterprise data infrastructure, advanced analytics, customer experience, and health care. Each section will provide valuable information about how data can affect your business. The hope is that this can help you prepare for the wave of data that’s coming.