How much customer data does any business really need?

How much new data is being generated every year? While it’s obviously a lot, it’s also probably safe to say that no one really knows for certain… in large part because it’s growing so explosively.

McKinsey has published research finding that an increasing amount of our work week — 19 percent in 2012 — is taken up by simply searching for and gathering information. Meanwhile, EMC reported in 2014 that the amount of digital data being generated in the world is doubling every two years.

And then there’s the widely cited study — attributed to various sources, but actually published by the Scandinavian research organisation SINTEF — which declared that “a full 90% of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years.” Only that study came out more than three years ago, in May of 2013, so those findings would likely look very different today.

As we’ve seen from recent reports about intelligence data, some were worrying way back in 2010 that government agencies were already collecting far more data than they could ever make use of. This, they said, could actually make it more likely that important information and clues would be missed.

These worries have led companies like the feedback and survey organisation Questback to ask, “How much data is enough?”

“Big data’s strength and usefulness in decision-making only works when its huge data masses are combined with invaluable human insight and interpretation,” the company stated in a recent blog post. “While data may give you a clue as to what’s happening, you need to ask a human to discover why it’s happening.”

That’s obviously something one would expect a feedback and survey organisation to suggest… but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Writing in Forbes last October, Nikki Baird of Retail Systems Research pointed out, “Within the data they ultimately decide to collect, retailers will have to face up to the reality that every piece of data they hold about customers is not going to be valuable. Interesting, maybe. But not valuable. For example, should any retailer care if I have hazel eyes? Perhaps my optical store, and maybe someone who sells me cosmetics. Outside of that? Probably useless.”

Rather than continue racing to collect as much customer data as they possibly can, retailers — all businesses, really — should consider what data is truly most valuable to them in terms of how it can help them better serve their customers. That should, after all, be every organisation’s primary mission.

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