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Author's profile photo Irfan Khan

Serious Serendipity

Whether it’s the discovery of penicillin or the invention of the chocolate chip cookie, some notable innovations in history occur serendipitously. But in both these cases, at least, it was serious serendipity. That is, Sir Alexander Fleming was researching ways to control Staphylococcus bacteria when he stumbled upon the penicillin mold that killed it; and Mrs. Ruth Graves Wakefield was baking a batch of cookies when she created her tasty treat.

I mention this because as more and more enterprises explore the value hidden in Big Data, innovation of all types will flourish. Most of this innovation will come from the intentional analysis of the data. SAP customers do this every day by querying and exploring massive data sets in products like the SAP HANA platform or SAP Sybase IQ database and uncovering sought-after insights. But sometimes a key value in Big Data is discovered inadvertently.

Take, for example, Google’s discovery of its spell checker. As related in Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, a new book by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, engineers at the company discovered that they would not need to license spell checking software from a third party for Google Docs and other applications because it had a trove of spelling data from all the typos hundreds of millions of people had keyed into its search engine. Not only did the company have virtually every conceivable misspelling of a word, they had it dozens of languages available to them for nothing inside their vast data pool.

One of my favorite stories of serendipitous discoveries of value in data comes from one of our customers. Deloitte, which is the world’s largest consultancy with 200,000 employees, needed to comply with tax regulations related to expenses for its globe-trotting consultants. Aligning thousands of expense reports with the appropriate tax geographies was exceedingly complex and included huge data sets.

Before Deloitte deployed SAP HANA, the consultancy was able to align only about five percent of the expense reports with the various tax geographies. With SAP HANA, it’s now 100 percent. But, better still, Deloitte quickly realized that other global firms also needed to comply with the same tax authorities that it did, so the firm now plans to offer the expense and tax audit as a new service to its clients. So, serious internal analysis of its data has led serendipitously to an external revenue source.

So much of what companies do with their vast and growing data sets will be laser focused, targeting intentional outcomes for anticipated benefits. But there will be many more stories like those from Deloitte and Google, where serious value is serendipitous, delivering additional benefits than those planned. Those companies will have something extra to celebrate from their analytics work. We can hope that there will be chocolate chip cookies at the celebration.

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