Guest Column | May 29, 2019

Invisible Data's Impact On Retail

By Clark Richey, FactGem

Data Tunnel

What Is Invisible Data?

The term, invisible data is a relatively new buzzword that is frequently appearing in articles, conference talks and business meetings. But what is it? Invisible data refers to data that is critical to the operation of the organization, but is not managed by any of the plethora of existing enterprise IT systems.

How can that happen? How can a retail company with a significant IT program fail to capture critical data? The answer is surprisingly simple. Invisible data refers to the information that is filled by the efforts of individual employees to fill the gap between what enterprise IT is able to provide and what is required to get the job done. One example that is frequently seen in retail are analytics and reports, such as basket analyses, which are often produced by employees gathering data from multiple existing enterprise systems and generating their report/analytic locally, often using Microsoft Excel™. This document is used for a meeting or similar function, but is never centrally managed.

Invisible data also can refer to information that exists within the enterprise, but is inaccessible to those that need it, often due to the constraints of existing systems. Retail companies with an online presence often have a lot of this type of data, as the systems used to collect information about online activity often produce a massive amount of information. Organizations typically only manage and utilize a small portion of that data, grabbing the information that is most clearly valuable. However, the rest of the information can often be very valuable, as well, when connected to other pieces of corporate data and analyzed by the right people. This inaccessible data, unseen by most of the company, is another example of invisible data.

So why is this a problem? Numerous reasons:

  1. There is an issue with one or more of the existing enterprise solutions. When alternate solutions have been devised to meet business needs, these solutions often take extensive amounts of time as they involve numerous manual steps. This also makes for a time consuming and therefore expensive process.
  2. The processes for creating these invisible data artifacts are typically undocumented. When people change jobs or leave the company, their knowledge of these processes – and the data created by them – is often lost.
  3. When an unexpected event occurs, such as a recall due to a part failure or the contamination of an ingredient in the supply chain, the organization often cannot respond quickly. The information necessary to understand the full impact of this type of event is often held in invisible data, and is either not accessible to the people who need to respond or cannot be generated quickly enough, as discussed in point one above.
  4. Opportunities are being missed. The invisible data that is inaccessible can actually be made available and connected to siloed data sources. Exposing the information and connecting it with other relevant information allows for experts within the company to perform new analytics, discovering new insights and opportunities.

Materializing The Invisible

So now that we know what invisible data is, and how it can affect businesses, what can we do about it? The good news is that there several things that can be done to minimize the impact of invisible data and even to eventually eliminate it altogether.

  1. Promote a culture of data honesty. Recognize that your existing IT systems have gaps and people are likely filling those gaps with their own processes. Don’t punish the IT staff or the people working on their own processes. Everyone is doing the best they can with existing resources.
  2. Survey your existing invisible data. Knowing that you have a problem is the first step to solving the problem. Having established the culture of data honesty, seek out the people that have created their own processes or who are frustrated because they have questions that can’t be answered by the data to which they have access. Evaluate and prioritize this information to see where you can start to change existing systems to make them more efficient or create and connect new systems to deliver new insights.
  3. Evaluate new agile processes and technologies. There are new technologies that can help you more easily, quickly and efficiently manage and connect your data.

Remember, you are not alone! Invisible data is a common problem, especially with larger retail organizations. With a little diligence, you can gain control of, and eventually remove, your invisible data!

Clark Richey, FactGemAbout The Author

Clark Richey is the Chief Technology Officer at FactGem. He has over 20 years of experience designing and developing software, primarily for the defense and intelligence sectors.