ConAgra Foods shows how to use ‘small data’ wisely

Image provided by Getty Images (Eric Francis)

“Small data” already exists within your organization and can be extremely powerful when used wisely, as ConAgra Foods recently demonstrated.

Big data is exciting. If you outsource the collection and management of that data, and ensure you understand any that you use, valuable information is certainly available.

But “small data” that already exists within your organization is extremely powerful when used wisely. We may think that all the big companies are way past that and leveraging big data every day, but it’s simply not true.

For example, ConAgra Foods is a very large group within a very large company. It has multiple divisions, each with multiple facilities. An avalanche of data is created and spread all over the world. You can imagine how difficult it is for anyone to find and understand the nuances of any single piece of internal data they need.

Tim Sasek, manager of Human Resources-Talent Analytics at ConAgra Foods, has worked tirelessly to ensure HR people throughout all operations have the right data at the right time and right place. No big data focus, just making sure that the data collected within the company is useful in making business decisions. Sasek emphasized, “We need to get our own house in order before bringing in external data.”

Moving toward self-service

About four years ago, a centralized team supplied HR data in response to requests from individual HR employees throughout the company. Turnaround time wasn’t bad, but even two days can be too long in some cases. Why should they wait at all?

A second issue with providing that raw data to individuals was the resulting flexibility to include and exclude specific data in analysis. That examination might, unfortunately, overlook key aspects that should have been considered. Consistency across facilities was highly unlikely.

ConAgra Foods then moved to a “self-service” model, providing rapidly available, visual summarized data. The goal was effective movement from data to insight to action. By providing an on-demand and easily interpreted summarized view, time to action was significantly reduced. Additionally, common assumptions supported those actions, contributing to consistency across ConAgra Foods.

Making a choice

In reaching that state of “small data management effectiveness,” the company considered several data analytics companies before selecting Visier. For some businesses, a simple off-the-shelf package might work, but ConAgra Foods chose this option, as much for the software company’s commitment to product development and speed of implementation as for current state capabilities.

The talent analytics team is far from finished. A small team has responsibility for data quality, and identifying and addressing root causes for systemic problems. As the needs of the organization evolve, so must the collection of data, analysis and provision of information.

In retrospect, Sasek described challenges emanating from the provision of raw data as making the transitions more difficult than necessary. No regrets, just lessons learned.

For your company, a specialized analytics package may not be necessary. For your business, providing raw data to be used as chosen by individuals might be the right step.

But there is a lesson to be learned from the ConAgra Foods example. Before we go crazy chasing big data, let’s make sure we understand our own data and use it wisely. That process takes time, but time well invested.