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Big Data

It's time to devise a plan to store all the RFID data you're collecting and a strategy to use it—in combination with other information—to gain insights that could transform your business and provide a competitive advantage.
By Samuel Greengard
Sep 13, 2015

Big data. It's a popular term characterized by the three Vs: the volume, variety and velocity at which companies collect data that flows from traditional databases, financial transactions, weather patterns, point-of-sale (POS) terminals, beacons, sensors, clickstreams, social media, log files and myriad other sources. Now it's time to add radio frequency identification data to the mix, as organizations track and manage assets, inventory, tools and other things and people in real or near-real time—across supply chains and within factories, stores, hospitals, construction sites, stadiums and other venues.

Already, companies that have deployed RFID solutions are collecting accurate data automatically. They are dramatically reducing—if not eliminating—errors that result from manual tracking, including the use of bar codes. These organizations have gained visibility into the what, when, where and why of business processes, so they can turn a basic tracking tool into a business-intelligence tool and even a predictive analytics solution that can help them understand events and boost operational efficiencies and productivity while reducing costs and improving customer service.

Illustration: iStockphoto
Yet, beyond the return on investment that accrues from individual RFID deployments lies far greater business value. The ability to plug in and connect RFID data to other data sources for analysis can determine whether a company winds up on the leading edge and achieves a competitive advantage or lags behind. "Big data creates opportunities that can redefine and reinvent an organization," says Scott Schlesinger, data and information management leader for the Americas at EY IT Advisory.

Consider, for example, a food manufacturer or pharmaceutical firm that is RFID-tagging perishable goods and tracking them through the supply chain. If the product is monitored with a temperature sensor, the company can also receive alerts if the item is exposed to conditions that fall outside acceptable parameters. If that RFID data is also combined with historical sales data, weather data, POS data and social- media data, both the manufacturer and logistics provider can get a broader and deeper understanding of demand and consumption patterns and use this information to optimize production and shipments, Schlesinger says.

Similarly, big data can revolutionize interactions with customers. A department store retailer, for example, could use RFID to track shipments and products at an item level, POS data to monitor demand and social media sentiment data to understand consumer preferences. By combining this data, it's possible to gain a holistic view of the marketplace. It's also possible to use beacons for real-time, highly customized promotions, says Bill Hardgrave, dean of the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University and founder of the RFID Lab. "A business is able to adopt an omnichannel and highly personalized approach that takes customer interactions to an entirely different level," he says.

Industry experts agree that in the near future RFID and other big data will play an essential role in business, by making new insights possible across a wide swath of industries. "Big data is now at the center of everything," says Antonella Mei Pochtler, a senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Big data "slides the dial" from a reactive mode based on reports and data after the fact to a proactive mode that uses software algorithms and predictive analytics to make better decisions, says Mark Beyer, research VP at consulting firm Gartner. In this environment, there's a need for new thinking and new skills. Organizations must identify critical data and how elements intersect, tie together data sets, and break down silos that prevent them from achieving maximum returns.

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