Your unstructured data has immense value. Start using it.

With unstructured data playing such a prominent role in how businesses generate value, it makes sense to invest in a comprehensive data strategy.

3 years ago   •   4 min read

By Colby Tunick

If someone said that among all the emails logged in your CRM, phone calls you have recorded, and people who have interacted with your company on social media, there was an additional $100K in potential revenue, would you take notice? And if you took notice, would you know how to extract value out of your emails, past calls, and social media?

Structured data has historically been easier to analyze with basic statistical methods, and report on.

Companies collect billions of data points over their lifetime. From data in the CRM, social media traffic, to website analytics, this collected data helps businesses build a defensible moat that makes it hard for competitors to gain market share. Put another way, data is every companies ‘secret sauce.’

Data comes in various forms, including categorical, numerical, date-time, and text string variables. When companies go to use that data, they primarily use data that is structured. Structured data has historically been easier to analyze with basic statistical methods, and report on. Businesses have used unstructured data (e.g. text strings) less because deriving value takes specialty knowledge and processing. With new off-the-shelf software, this dynamic is changing, allowing all companies to harness the value of their unstructured data.

Unstructured data is information that is not arranged according to a preset data model or schema, and therefore cannot be stored in a traditional relational database (e.g., an excel file). Text and multimedia are two common types of unstructured content. Many business documents are unstructured, as are email messages, videos, photos, webpages, and audio files.

According to Forbes, up to 90 percent of data generated and collected by organizations is unstructured, and its volumes are growing rapidly — many times faster than the rate of growth for structured databases. Ranging from word fragments to whole recorded conversations, this data holds immense value. Only recently have off-the-shelf software platforms come to market that allow companies to use this data, and the insights locked within, to drive business decisions and increase revenue.

Unstructured data comes in different formats

The unstructured data you have today

Unstructured data stores contain a wealth of information that can guide business decisions. However, unstructured data has historically been very difficult to analyze.

With the help of AI, new software tools exist that can search through vast quantities of it to uncover beneficial and actionable business intelligence.

Examples of unstructured data include:

  • Email: Email message fields are unstructured and cannot be parsed by traditional analytics tools. That said, email metadata affords it some structure, and explains why email is sometimes considered semi-structured data.
  • Text files: This category includes word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, email, and log files.
  • Social media and websites: Data from social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, and websites such as Instagram, photo-sharing sites, and YouTube.
  • Mobile and communications data: Text messages, phone recordings, collaboration software, Chat, and Instant Messaging.
  • Media: Digital photos, audio, and video files.
  • Scientific data: Oil and gas surveys, space exploration, seismic imagery, and atmospheric data.
  • Digital surveillance: Reconnaissance photos and videos.
  • Satellite imagery: Weather data, landforms, and military movements.

Keep in mind that we can store unstructured data in a structured way. A common example is storing word documents on a Microsoft SharePoint site. Even though it is easy to search and find the specific document, it is complex to analyze the data within the file. In a business setting, it is the data within the file that provides value, not the ability to find the file easily.

Unstructured data helps companies navigate competitive landscapes

The value in your unstructured data

Imagine you’re a doctor who needs to analyze hundreds of memos about a patient’s history and symptoms to spot life-threatening patterns. Or you’re a lawyer in need of a faster, more accurate way to spot risky contract language and speed up the decision process of your legal team.

The bulk of data generated today is unstructured data.

The time we take, as humans, to complete these exacting tasks can be difficult to rationalize. But thanks to advances in AI, these analyses are automatically and accurately completed, as computers learn desired patterns and replicate them to improve future results.

Since the bulk of data generated today is unstructured data, it’s important that organizations manage and analyze it so that they can act on the data and make important business decisions. This helps organizations prosper in highly competitive environments. Organizations that ignore this information are effectively hobbling themselves.

A comprehensive data strategy makes decision making less stressful

A worthwhile investment

With unstructured data playing such a prominent role in how businesses operate and generate value, it makes sense to invest in a comprehensive data strategy. As mentioned earlier, unstructured data makes up almost 90% of all the data that companies collect. That means for every business question you try to answer without leveraging your unstructured data, you only have a 10% chance of answering it accurately, if at all.

The value of unstructured data comes down to using all the information at your disposal to remain competitive and provide products to delight your customers. Knowing the complete picture before deciding is crucial as the world becomes more digital and customers expect businesses to move faster.

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