The way we live, work and think is about to be transformed – the industry’s challenge is to be a full part of the big data story

Big Data

The COO of a global firm recently asked me a right question and an important question. The right question is this: “In 2014, what kinds of conversations should we be having about big data?” The important question is this: “Is big data a big innovation?” The latter question yields to an easy answer. Yes. Big data is potentially the most significant digital-era innovation to affect our industry. Bigger than the internet. A big conversation then?

Innovation and big data share a common problem. We talk about them often but may not necessarily appreciate what they mean. My minimalistic working definition of strategic innovation is the creation or extraction of new value from insights. Coincidentally, that definition also captures what big data uniquely enables – previously unattainable insights, the energy source of innovation and competitive advantage. Big data is more than big. We are talking about almost incomprehensibly large amounts of data. A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes, or a 1, followed by 21 zeroes. IDC Digital illustrated this simply – should you fancy storing a zettabyte on 32-gigabyte iPads, you would need 86bn devices.

Beyond and because of this massive scale, big data implies the possibility of navigating those oceans of information to discover meaning, find patterns and surprising connections. A mere decade ago, 25% of stored information was digitalised – now it’s tipping past 99%. In innovation terms, this is jaw-droppingly amazing. Not even 3D printing can vie with big data’s draconian force as the innovation that keeps on innovating – and its potential is still nascent.

Big data can wield its innovative prowess on the least tractable of mankind’s challenges. Demonstrable impact is emerging in all branches of science, in healthcare, in disease control, in pollution and climate change. It will radically alter global understanding of the risks we insure.

It is transforming business behaviours, operations and business models. Part of the yield on big data at the enterprise level happens to be risk mitigation – or even elimination. So big data elevates our abilities to understand and manage risk of almost any genre. The conversation we should be having in 2014, with some urgency, is whether our historically data deploying industry is set to be revolutionised, to disrupt or be disrupted by big data. If not, from what do we derive this immunity?

What we use innovation for matters. It is depressing, if unsurprising, that some commercial big data applications are consumer manipulations disguised as consumer centricity. Big data concentrates immense and dangerously ungovernable power in the hands of a few. In the wrong hands – terrorist, criminal, governmental – everything good can be put to sinister use. Our big data business conversation cannot evade its social, philosophical and political relevance and risks, however daunting. Our conversation should also appreciate recent realisations of big data’s independent economic value, distinct from the functional purpose that first created it. Moreover, big data’s value is not depleted but expanded by use and reuse. This demands a major mental shift; historically data’s value, unless IP or specifically exploitable, derived from their ancillary support to a business function.


‘Companies which leverage big data to further their business strategies will gain competitive advantage. Understanding how to find new business insights in big data and using these new insights to improve decision making  is the key to outperformance’

Kimberly Holmes, head of strategic analytics at XL Group

‘The databases of the future will be based on what individuals are prepared to share. To get people to share, we must communicate the value of the knowledge they give us and show that there is a benefit for them as well as for us’

Daniel Ryan, head population risk & data analytics R&D, Swiss Re

‘What data can you/do you need to collect and for what purpose? And have you the mechanisms to spot patterns in the data that the human brain and traditional tools can’t? Businesses that answer these questions will steal a march’

Jim Sadler, group chief information officer, Xchanging

Big data occupies a lead, not supporting, role as a strategic asset. Such attributes distinguish big data from our industry’s traditional use of data— capturing data in production and archival systems, deploying historical data in myriad ways enhanced by analytics from process improvements to product development, segmentation and rating systems. We will need to be cautious not to conflate or even see as linear what we did with data before big data and what happens next.

What happens next goes to the heart of big data’s story and our own human story. Big data will transform the way we live, work, and think. So we must ask questions in thoughtful, inclusive conversations. Insurance responds to what happens in the world – our leadership and global citizenship challenge is to co-author the story of what happens next.

The swift and the strong may win the short-term race to harness big data tools, but the uniquely human challenge in the long run will be to figure out where intuition, ingenuity, common sense, instinct and error belong in our brave new world.

Karen Morris is a strategy and innovation adviser to a range of (re)insurers including AIG, where she served as its first chief innovation officer. With more than 25 years’ experience in law, management and insurance underwriting, she has developed unique innovation methodologies. She is president of the Insurance Innovation Institute and senior fellow of the Institute for Innovation in Large Organisations.