Controller & Big Data | Why controllers must understand Big Data!

Why every controller should know everything about Big Data

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Controllers like to keep things manageable and help organizations with keeping KPIs in order. This is understandable and good from a risk management perspective, but modern controllers must now know everything about Big Data. This is because established KPIs and manageability have to clear the way for Big Data and innovation. Organizations that lose sight of this transition risking completely missing the boat.

Big Data replaces established KPIs

Huge volumes of data don’t necessarily provide more or a better understanding. Even with Big Data, it’s vital to make sure that the resulting generated information is accurate and comprehensive. As you may see from the following example, the shift to Big Data from established KPIs takes creativity and a paradigm shift.

A well-known oil company has thousands of pumps on the seabed that pump huge amounts of oil on a daily basis. If a pump unexpectedly breaks down, it takes the oil company around 5 days to fix it, but it may take much longer if the weather is bad. For that reason, the oil company decided to equip the pumps with various types of sensors that provide constant Big Data flow.

Irregularities in that data flow indicated that a particular critical component was about to fail, which would threaten the operation of the entire pump. The data was monitored and analyzed in real time, and necessary measures were promptly taken to deal with irregularities, when the weather allowed. The failing part of the pump was replaced as a preventative measure, which limited the pump’s failure (KPI) to a maximum of 2 days, the fastest possible.

This was a huge gain for the oil company. Over time, the good old failure KPI vanished from the management dashboard because the failure was “completely” under control. Targeted preventive maintenance, controlled by a Big Data source, made that KPI unnecessary.

Are KPIs thus completely unnecessary?

There has been a lot of deliberation about appointing the appropriate KPIs, not to mention the heated discussions around definitions and standards. Have KPIs suddenly become obsolete and useless with the advent of Big Data? Should we get rid of KPIs altogether?

No, because first of all, the established KPIs are very useful when thinking together and discussing how to reach the 100% (or 0%) score by using Big Data. We cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater. Moreover, when a good Big Data source replaces an established KPI, then measurement occurs earlier in the process and in advance instead of afterwards. The KPI window shifts to the fore, now under pressure from Big Data.

This should ring a bell since this is a known phenomenon. Where organizations were once only concerned with financial performance (end of the process), savvy businesses measured earlier in the process, that which was really critical for achieving high profits and customer satisfaction. The key performance indicator (KPI) was introduced. With the arrival of Big Data, KPIs got a different aspect because the window shifted. This different aspect called for a different name!

KPIs are now also determined based on Big Data.

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From financial control to business control

The former coincides with the current trend in which financial control is converted into business control. Organizations increasingly realize that they should not hammer shut their entrepreneurial space with financial indicators. This is how they become managed into the ground.

This is why the modern controller will increasingly use his influence to carry out measurements earlier in the process and thus become more of a sparring partner of business operations. Of course, without losing control because that function will always remain as solid as rock. The type of control may change, but not its essence.

From reactive to proactive: new business models

The perpetual pushing forward of the KPI window results in creating new business models and other nuances. Sometimes with far-reaching consequences for the organization and targets. While the fire department continues measuring the number of fires (established KPI), various fire departments are busy significantly shifting the KPI window.

That how the Amsterdam-Amstelland Fire Department could predict where the highest likelihood of the outbreak of certain types of fires would be based on open (big) data sources. The firefighters now take an iPad along in order to share specific information with residents and stop by the addresses where this information can make a difference. A shift that really accounts for why these firefighters were awarded with the Smartest Organization in the Netherlands in 2013.


Controllers who continue to stick with their familiar old KPIs and disregard the potential of Big Data will miss the boat or their boat will capsize. The smart application of relevant (big) data will progressively determine the competitive advantage and the social relevance of organizations.

About Daan van Beek

Daan van Beek is the author of The Intelligent Organization management book (4th edition) and is Managing Director of the Passionned Group. He gives master classes and workshops on KPIs, Big Data, and Business Intelligence at TIAS, EUR, and outside the Netherlands in Asia, South Africa, and the USA.

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