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How to develop big data consulting services

Experts offer advice around developing big data consulting services, including building use cases, preparing staff, standing out among competitors and uncovering opportunities.

Big data spells big opportunity. Companies that understand how to leverage their structured and unstructured data can uncover valuable customer insights, new ways of marketing their products and services, and entirely new lines of business. But big data is new territory for many businesses, and that makes big data consulting services a potentially lucrative opportunity for IT solution providers with the proper experience, skill sets and know-how.

According to CompTIA's Quick Start Guide for solution providers on easing into big data, "In many ways, big data has become a proxy for data initiatives in general. As such, the big data trend will present a range of direct and indirect business opportunities for IT channel partners with the right mix of technical skill and business savvy."

Solution providers with established big data consulting practices agree that big data is simply an evolution of business intelligence and data warehousing. "The idea of being able to economically scale and manage machine-generated data has been around for at least a decade, if not more," explained Mike Fahey, CTO at Chicago-based solution provider Clarity Solution Group. "The advent of open source technologies that are reliable, as well as an industry that's gotten behind those technologies to make them feasible and accessible to more than just the very large, very mature organizations that have budget to spend is newer."

Put more simply, Fahey said, "I would argue that Wal-Mart has done big data for ages, but now it's economically feasible for a business that's smaller than Wal-Mart [to do big data]."

A new name means new business cases

Solution providers like Clarity Solution Group have offered what they consider big data consulting services for the past two to three years. For these IT channel companies, it's been simply a matter of semantics. John Onder, principal for sales and strategic alliances at CBIG Consulting, a Rosemont, Ill.-based professional services firm, explained: "Some of it is just marketing and making sure you're addressing what the market is asking for. When the market started recognizing [big data] terms and the technologies, and they started becoming more accepted in traditional business models, and our clients started looking at those technologies -- that's when it made sense to start calling it big data services."

The big data space, as a whole, is still being defined. "The business cases are still forming -- not all there yet -- and I think that's a big thing going on. Over the next couple years, those reference architectures and business use cases and how to use the technology will further define this space and what big data services are," Onder said.

That uncertainty presents opportunities for IT channel companies. "The biggest opportunity for solution providers with this skill set is to do the consulting work around big data," said Carolyn April, director of industry analysis at CompTIA. End users aren't that far along in their big data projects, she explained. Many have IT departments that would love to leverage data, but they don't know what data assets they have or how to make use of them. Solution providers can do an assessment of data assets and put together a plan with the business owners regarding what they want to achieve and how to do so.

"From a business perspective, it's being able to go in and be that consultant who can help the end user figure out what exactly they are trying to do or what the possibilities are. If you can provide some sort of use case and [return on investment] ROI, that's very valuable to the end customer," April said.

Clarity's Fahey agreed. "Our larger clients already have mature data warehousing," he said. "We are helping them figure out how they can launch a big data initiative inside the infrastructure and get ROI out of it."

Preparing staff to offer big data consulting services

When it comes to acquiring the skill sets needed to offer big data consulting services, CompTIA advises channel firms to "be prepared to have a multifaceted customer engagement involving technical and business-objective problem-solving with staff across many functional areas."

Certifications are helpful in this endeavor, but they must be accompanied by experience. "Anyone can go out and get a certification," explained Paul Cattrone, big data and analytics practice director at Lilien Systems, a Larkspur, Calif.-based solutions provider. "That doesn't necessarily mean that you have an understanding of technology and what its strengths and weaknesses are. It means you understand from a textbook point of view but not necessarily an implementation point of view. That's where growing up with the technology is a benefit."

When you have a conversation with a customer and can say, 'This is how I solved that [same] problem this year or two years ago,' … it gives us a lot of credibility.
Paul Cattrone, big data and analytics practice director, Lilien Systems

Cattrone said his team has worked with big data tools like Hadoop since 2010. This hands-on experience enables them to successfully address customer problems. "When you have a conversation with a customer and can say, 'This is how I solved that [same] problem this year or two years ago,' … it gives us a lot of credibility," he said.

IT channel companies that don't have a background and experience in big data can still develop a big data consulting practice. "Companies can make it a fit if they work hard enough at it and have the money to invest," CompTIA's April said. But, she added, "That's going to be a much more difficult adoption. It doesn't mean [those IT channel companies] shouldn't do it, but they need to start with a data management practice or database development work and get experience there before jumping into more complex types of analytics that you see being done under the big data scope."

How to stand out in the big data crowd

IT solution providers considering a foray into big data consulting services should be mindful of the size and scope of the marketplace. "While the set of pure-play big data firms is relatively small, the broader ecosystem of firms in the data space is quite large. When thinking about potential competitors, it's a good idea to think broadly," CompTIA advises in its report.

Big data services can run the gamut from data assessments to business strategy to implementation. These services are being offered by a variety of businesses beyond VARs, systems integrators and IT consultants, including PR firms, survey research firms, brand management firms, marketing firms and business consultants. The CompTIA report advises that solution providers consider these competitors, as well as how they can offer services that are differentiated from those of competitors.

April advised, "Don't bite off more than you can chew. Do a good self-assessment. Be honest about your skill level, your resources financially and from a human standpoint, and your commitment to this. If you don't do that, you could end up falling flat on your face and have a bad customer experience at the beginning."

While the scope of the market is sizeable, April said she isn't seeing a huge immersion in the channel. "The differentiators are a, doing [big data consulting] and b, doing it competently right now," she said.

Beyond those, the differentiators April identified for big data consulting services should sound familiar to IT solution providers, as they could apply to any practice: "The differentiators are competence and having a good relationship with the customer and being able to provide business advice. Know when to steer customers away from a solution that won't be beneficial and may be an unnecessary expense for them," she said.

Of course, being able to make that call requires experience -- a differentiator that Onder said works well for CBIG Consulting. "The depth of knowledge of our people and [their] experience level and focus in this space is different than most. Most of our people have 10 years of experience in this space. From a big data perspective, we have people who have been there and done it, and seen the evolution and how the pieces fit together, versus someone that has just done Hadoop and doesn't understand where those technologies fit well and where they don't."

Uncovering big data opportunities

Like establishing differentiators, ramping up a big data consulting business is like starting any other practice area. CompTIA's April advised that IT solution providers begin by looking for opportunities among existing customers. "That's where you need to start if you're new to this business. You know how their business runs, and you have a relationship. Because the familiarity is there, it will be easier than going to a net-new customer and trying to apply the same insights into a company that you're not familiar with."

That said, nearly any business can benefit from big data consulting services. "Even the smallest businesses are generating so much data internally, almost anyone is a good candidate," April said. "But if you work backwards from the goals of the customer, those are the ones that you want to target -- those that have a good sense of what they want to do."

April said solution providers can gather case studies and proof points from these engagements and present them to net-new customers as proof of experience.

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