Can big data be harnessed to help SMEs innovate?

Traditional innovation, such as funding regimes and initiatives, largely fail to meet the demands of SMEs. Pic courtesy of Paul Tallon

Innovation for many SMEs is often small scale and relates primarily to internal process adaptations rather than ground breaking new product innovation. Many are driven by the need to see the immediate and tangible benefits of innovation before they will invest. Others struggle to be inspired by the possibilities of innovation for their business,

Traditional innovation, such as funding regimes and initiatives, largely fail to meet the demands of SMEs, being more geared towards a few technology-led businesses in a limited range of 'high growth' sectors. The current innovation support infrastructure tends to favour larger-scale, new product innovation and classic R&D activity and, as a result, many SMEs are missing out on fully exploiting their innovation potential.

We are at an important tipping point in the transformation from an analogue to a digital world. Manufacturing, for example, is changing rapidly, fuelled by the digital revolution. Companies will need to become increasingly agile and adaptable. Luckily, the digital age is also producing solutions to the challenges SMEs face. Smaller firms can now afford to innovate, as well as design and prototype personalised products and services. A new generation of “makers” is being stimulated by speed and adaptability of new manufacturing techniques, employing a diverse range of new capabilities including VR, big data, Internet of things (IoT), additive layer manufacturing and laser technologies.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, Big data: The next frontier for innovation, completion, and productivity, good use of data can potentially generate significant finance value across all sectors. There is the potential to improve efficiency and effectiveness, enabling organisations to do more with less and to produce higher-quality outputs. The challenge is to capture this potential by establishing the optimum mix of infrastructure and support structures that will enable businesses, governments and citizens to maximise the value of data.

The University of Huddersfield sees the digitalisation of the economy as a new and more accessible route to innovation for SMEs. Alongside the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC), it is planning to develop a Business Data Visualisation Centre which will be the first devoted to the interests and needs of SMEs. Big Data can play an important role in stimulating local enterprise innovation and entrepreneurship by combining public open data, secondary data such as IoT data, alongside business intelligence data in a way that generates innovation.

High quality data visualisation is critical in this process, but it can be confusing and expensive for most SMEs and almost certainly there is no one single product which can accommodate a business’ vast needs. A visualisation centre has the capacity to help navigate through these processes, to visualise new markets and business opportunities, and to assist a business in their decision making.

Clever visualisation software on its own is not the answer, as for most businesses understanding the evidence is only the start of the journey. Data and intelligence are key to the process of business change and innovation and yet all too often firms struggle to see the message behind the figures and miss opportunities to adapt or invest, not because there is a lack of information but because it is not in a format that they can readily comprehend. The challenge is to find ways in which businesses can be helped to understand this important information and enable them to make evidence based decisions. Visualisation is about bringing data to life and helping us gain new insights – and that is the starting point for what we consider as ‘innovation’.

James Devitt is industry programme manager at Huddersfield University and 3M Buckley Innovation Centre’s  business development manager.

If you are an SME interested in benefiting from the Business Data Visualisation Centre contact James Devitt on