Saturday, May 30, 2015

Interview With Big Data Author Charles Morgan

A New Book Tells the Story of the Man Who Paved the Way for the Big Data Revolution        

Corporations, marketers, and governments are exploring the practical and legal limits of collecting and utilizing Big Data.  One man began thinking about its value decades before anyone else, and he’s revealing his professional insights, personal experiences, and career triumphs in a new book, Matters of Life and Data:  The Remarkable Journey of a Big Data Visionary Whose Work Impacted Millions --Including You (Morgan James, ISBN: 978-1-63047-467-6; Cloth; 320 pages; $24.95; July 6, 2015).

“The man who opened your lives to Big Data finally bares his own,” reads the introduction to this most stirring memoir. Indeed, he has much to share, as Morgan, 72, should know a few things about Big Data. The company he helped grow into a technology and marketing powerhouse, Acxiom, is a world leader in data-gathering and its accompanying technology, and has collected over 1,500 separate pieces of information on some half a billion people around the globe.

His book, which is being promoted to the news media by the PR firm I work for, recounts and celebrates a journey from his modest upbringing in a small town on the Arkansas River to his role as one of America’s all-time Big Data visionaries. During his 36-year tenure, Morgan grew a small data processing firm of 25 employees into a global juggernaut by becoming one of the largest aggregators of data and consumer information in the world. He transformed the small data processing company into a publicly held, $1.4 billion corporation with 7,000 employees and offices throughout the world.

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Here is an interview with Mr. Morgan:

1.      How can we protect the privacy of individuals but still allow companies to benefit from the use of Big Data? Big Data has the potential to do a great deal of good in our world today and for many years to come. On the other hand, Big Data will create a lot privacy issues.  Today, much more data is being recorded about each of us than you might imagine. In February 2015, for example, Samsung admitted that their new TVs will be collecting data about the people who watch them. That data will include voice data (what you say about what you are watching), picture data (your expressions as you watch), and viewing data. Samsung of course claims that this data will only be used to improve the quality of the overall experience of using their product. Do I believe them? I don’t doubt that this is what they intended these data-collection TVs to do, but it sure doesn't take much imagination to see a great potential for misuse of such data. We will never be able to write enough laws to totally solve this problem. We cannot stop companies from using data that improves the quality of products and services. However, we must somehow protect ourselves from misuse. At Acxiom, our motto was “consumer privacy is a state of mind.” It didn't matter if something was legal; the question should be posed, “Is this right? Is this the way we would want to have our data collected and used?”  Companies have to have education programs for their employees and create that state of mind—that the security of people's personal data is important to our whole society. 

2.      You say that Acxiom Corporation, a world leader in data gathering and its accompanying technology, has obtained some 1,500 separate pieces of information on over a half-billion people worldwide. How do we make sure the information is not used wrongfully? I had great concerns about the possibility of data misuse at Acxiom. We had literally hundreds of thousands of data files with extraordinary amounts of in-depth information about everyone who lived in the United States and many in Europe. I developed a philosophy that we could not create enough rules at Acxiom to solve the problem. Eventually I came to believe that creating an atmosphere and culture of data protection was the best answer. We chose to educate our people and to create a simple set of rules. For example, the “do right rule” taught our employees to think about the data that they cared for as data about people just like themselves—in fact, it could even include their own family members. So treat that data like you would want your own data to be treated.  Of course there were more complex rules that applied in all of our data practices. There were—and still are—laws that protect people’s credit data.  Credit data could only be used for preapproved credit offers and not for other kinds of marketing. To help oversee all this process of education and oversight with our employees and our customers, in 1991 I appointed a chief privacy officer. Jennifer Barrett became the first chief privacy officer in the United States, and today she still holds that position at Acxiom. Jennifer has become a global leader in marketing data use and data protection.

3.      You are the CEO of your latest tech venture, PrivacyStar. It’s been seven years since you stepped down as chairman and CEO of Acxiom. What did you still find rewarding—and challenging—in trying to grow another company? Creating and building a small company is a lot more fun than trying to manage a much larger company. Sometimes at Acxiom I felt like I was trying to herd cats as I provided leadership on a multitude of fronts. Many parts of the public company CEO’s job are really not very enjoyable. You have to deal with lawyers and boards as well as many other distractions, like unfriendly press.  I always wanted to spend as much time as possible on new product development and leadership activities at Acxiom. Down deep in my heart, I felt like life was being sucked out of me by activities that were beyond my control. There were things I just had to do and couldn’t get out of but I sure didn’t like them much. I felt like I didn’t have enough time to do the job that would contribute most to the growth and success of Acxiom. In a small company like PrivacyStar, I am able to spend much more of my time working on things like new product creation and development. We are doing things that no one else is doing in the mobile space. We built ourselves from a big money loser to a profitable company. That is fun. There’s still a lot of work and worry, but the overall satisfaction level is a lot higher for me when I feel more in control of my destiny and doing things that I enjoy. If we miss a quarter at PrivacyStar, it’s only us who are disappointed, and there are no newspaper headlines.

4.      Early on your company was in debt and couldn’t make payroll. You asked people to cut their pay in half for a period of time in exchange for paying them a more once you got past the dark period. How did that turn out? We got to a point in 1976 when we were losing money and were in danger of not being able to make payroll. Our principal owners, the Wards of school bus fame, were in terrible financial shape and they had no ability to help us out. There was no one to fire and no way to cut expenses that I could see.  So I came up with the crazy idea that if we could make our payroll a third smaller, we could survive. All we had to do was to get the top six most highly paid people, including myself, to take a 50 percent pay cut. I can’t imagine going to a management team today with such a scheme.  We were working on some new very promising opportunities that would make the company profitable if we successfully completed them. I told everyone that they would get two dollars back for every dollar of pay they gave up, should we succeed. I must’ve been very convincing because they bought it and no one left. And not only did they double their money, but through this crisis we also developed increased levels of trust and a stronger bond within the top leadership team.

5.      To what do you attribute your success in becoming a dominant force in the market database world? Several things. We had a number of principles guiding our business strategy and execution.  One was to hire outstanding people—we recruited intensely at area colleges and universities and were able to attract the best and brightest young graduates. Another was to provide world-class service to our customers, which helped us both acquire and keep customers.  Take Citibank—it became a customer in 1983 and is still a major customer of Acxiom’s today.  From our earliest days we also put a premium on designing and creating leading edge software, and that gave us a leg up in the marketplace. In the mid-1970’s, for example, we created a revolutionary way to manage and deliver mailing lists for the Direct Marketing industry.  The List Order Fulfillment System (LOFS) was faster, better, and cheaper than existing mostly manual systems were at the time; more importantly, LOFS was more accurate.  Another game-changer was called AbiliTec, introduced around the year 2000. AbiliTec made large-scale name and address data far more accurate than ever before, and to this day it remains a key component of Acxiom’s technology arsenal. We created a business culture and an organizational strategy that helped us be more nimble—and more efficient—than most other companies our size.  We instituted formal initiatives that emphasized leadership, and we provided our people with training in the qualities of effective leaders.  We also did some pretty radical things, such as doing away with corporate titles. When I gave up the title of CEO and introduced myself simply as Acxiom’s “Company Leader,” I got more than a few puzzled stares. All of these concepts worked together to create an effective leadership team and to achieve solid results for our customers, over many years. But satisfaction wasn’t limited to customers—employees liked the atmosphere at Acxiom as well, and the company is full of people who have stayed for decades.

6.      Do you think the laws will change with technology as it relates to what information is gathered, shared, and used? Controlling the gathering and use of data has always been a complex problem to administer. The Internet is making this problem almost too big to comprehend. Certainly laws will have to be written and old laws amended to give basic protection to citizens of the world. On the one hand, people say, “I don’t want anyone using any data about me without my permission”—even as those same people post everything about their private lives on Facebook. On the other hand, companies say, “We’re going to protect the consumer and their information”—even as those same companies are putting cameras and listening devices in their TVs to collect information about viewing habits.  Much of the data that companies collect for a specific reason is used to benefit consumers. The problem is that the quantity of the data that is being collected, by electronic devices and over the Internet, is growing exponentially today. Access to the data that companies collect is usually carefully protected, but not always. There have been a number of widely publicized situations in which well-respected companies have gotten in hot water for collecting and using data improperly. Additional laws are going to be complex to write, but are certainly needed to cover potential Big Data abuses. We do have examples of successful laws, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act—25 years and counting, and that law is still serving us well. The best way to solve these problems is not to rush to a conclusion, but to get industry involved in making recommendations in new areas like the Internet. All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not a legislator or a lawyer, because I really don’t have great answers in this area.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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