Why it’s nimble SMEs that are best-positioned to capitalise on the huge benefits of big data

BIG CORPORATIONS are best placed to exploit big data, right? They have the resources, and can afford to focus effort on the science of data, and turn that into business advantage. Maybe. But the way the technology environment is moving, maybe not.

It’s now been the case for a while that, with a credit card, you can spin up a technology environment that rivals what big corporations have: enterprise email and collaboration tools, customer relationship management, resource planning, and so on. Organisations, from Amazon to Salesforce.com and Apple, can give you impressive technology that does big things.

Yet small businesses have a significant advantage – they can change much faster. It can take minutes to get up and running. That same service going into a big corporation will roll out fast, just not that fast. And the large groups of people the technology affects can take time to catch up. The technologies that are still only available to the largest organisations have to see value before the commodity ones catch up. The result is that, in practice, a switched-on smaller business can get to the value faster.

Big data for a small and medium-sized company means vast and complex data about your markets, customers, and anything else relevant that you could never hope to analyse yourself. Thankfully, smart organisations have done the data science and turned it into cloud services. The tools out there right now can help a smaller company capture vast amounts of data about its customers – their behaviours, preferences, buying journey – and put the learning straight into practice in product changes, marketing campaigns and personal journeys for customers. You can connect web, social, marketing and logistics on multiple platforms that all talk to each other. In a smaller business, you don’t need to take it through three internal meetings and run the office politics gauntlet with a design-by-committee output. You just do it.

You really can now run your business from a coffee shop or the beach, just as long as you have a fast enough and reliable enough internet connection. Mobile 4G LTE technology is spectacular science and technology, designed to do one thing – give you a faster and better connection. And the devices you use with it are taking app culture into business. This is the age of the Enterprise App. These amazing cloud services won’t be dumb enough to ignore your tablet. And for the largest platforms, they may well have an app store so you can easily purchase niche enhancements – or if you’ve created one, sell it on to others.

So not only can you use these new tools and get things done quickly, you don’t have to sit chained to a desk in an open plan office, hoping one day for a spot by the window. A small business can compete for talent, not just on salary but on lifestyle and job satisfaction.

This culminates in a massive shift in our environment; small business is the new leviathan, and it is alarming many big corporations. Large institutions realise they can’t move this fast, struggle to compete on work/life balance, and fear market disruptions that could end them overnight. The large information businesses – like Google and Facebook – are accustomed to living with this threat, and survive by grabbing more information from their customers than anyone else on the planet. Some sectors may need scale to operate, but creative ways of working are challenging those assumptions.

To compete, small business needs three things: ideas, cash, and capability. These amazing cloud services need a lot of intelligence and skill to get the most out of them, and ready access to finance is of course like oxygen. So government policy needs to create an environment where skills and cash are loitering, waiting for the right creative idea.

With a leap forward in UK communications infrastructure on LTE, with a talented workforce that would prefer not to travel on the Tube at rush hour, with unbelievable cloud services available as a free trial on amazing devices, and with an economy on the rebound, 2014 is the year of the small business. It almost seems rude not to have your startup idea on the go.

David Evans is a director at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, and is a member of the Institute of Directors.