India Inc is betting the house (and the farm) on big data; according to India’s National Association of Software and Services (NASSCOM) the sector will be worth over $16 billion by 2025, up from just $2 billion today.
Since returning to Mumbai after a couple of years away, I’ve noticed the impact of another – more ancient – phenomenon. The power of ‘small’ data; the anecdotes, habits, preferences, tastes, characteristics . . . that Indian shopkeepers, tradespeople and waiters seem to retain to close the deal.
When we returned to Mumbai, even before moving into our news house, our maid received a call from our former electrician; he had seen my wife in Pali Market in Bandra buying household items to equip the house. Not speaking a word of English, he remembered my former maid’s number and called her to get the scoop. ‘Yes’, he was told, ‘Madam is back’.
The son of the owner of the Kirana (family) store next to our former apartment promptly cycled to our new house (who knows, how he found the address) offering to deliver water bottles; the local newspaper kiosk owner remembered my preference for the Economist and, not only set aside a copy for me, tried to sell me the last two years’ back issues ‘at a discount’. I did explain that they published the Economist in Sao Paulo where I’d been living. ‘Yes, but this is the Indian version . . . ,‘ came the retort. Even the street cobbler from outside my former house in Bandra waved to me from his ‘office’ under a tree when I passed, after seeing me for the first time in two years . . . . and I was speeding by in a car, complete with tinted windows!
Prior to moving into our new apartment, we spent a few weeks living at the Taj Hotel at Lands End, when the local ‘small data’ expertise was in overdrive. By the time we left, the wonderful staff had purchased and installed a shoe rack in our room (because, we had so many shoes), knew never to serve my Italian wife’s salad or steamed vegetables without olive oil, Balsamic vinegar (di Modena) and an accompanying slice of lemon on the side, and had even mastered the art of a ‘proper’ expresso macchiato – Italian style!
The Financial Times’ Andrew Hill witnessed small data in action during his recent visit to Mumbai1
: ” . . . I rose before dawn in Mumbai recently to watch the city’s newspaper vendors get ready for their rounds . . . . sorting thousands of papers in some 20 languages into teetering metre-high stacks, for distribution by bicycle. The sellers commit each complex order to memory, not a computer algorithm in sight . . ”
Just like its ‘big data’ cousin, such recall – based as it is on observation, memory and a genuine interest in humanity – is all about building customer loyalty; but it reveals an aptitude which is gradually becoming devalued in more developed markets, particularly, within younger generations.
One of my ex colleagues is working on a project in France which reveals children’s attention spans to be shorter now than ever before. According to a new research paper from Goldsmith’s College in London2
, “ . . . (children) are bombarded with information from multiple sources, throughout their waking hours . . . (they) now expect to flit from activity to activity in a matter of seconds, leaving them struggling when they need to concentrate for longer, for instance, during a classroom learning experience . . . .”. This doesn’t bode well for the art of the insight in the future.
The big data industry certainly promises much for India Inc. But the demise of the ‘small data’ insight would leave the world a poorer place; literally. As India is demonstrating every day, genuine, intuition, an interest in what other people tick, a spirit of curiosity and observation – ideally, backed by an elephantine memory – can provide as powerful an insight as any computer generated equivalent.
Especially, if practiced assiduously by over a billion small data experts, every day!