Big data in business retains an exotic allure—although the term appears to be everywhere and may be approaching the state of uber-hype (pun not intended). If there is a knock about big data, it’s that business leaders run the risk of looking at a lump of data and wonder, “What problems can we solve?”

Doug Randall, WG’97, has a simpler definition for big data, a definition that gets to the heart of the practical and powerful intent of analytics.

“Big data means just using data to solve problems,” he says. “The question is: Which problems [to solve]?”

In the case of the San Francisco-based company Randall founded, Monitor 360, analysts start with the problems, then build a data-driven approach to solve them.

It goes back to how Monitor 360 got its start working with security/military agencies. Initially, Randall was hired by the White House and the U.S. intelligence community after 9/11 to help the nation avoid future strategic surprises by understanding and tracking the narratives of terrorists. The work led to Monitor 360 to analyze “master narratives”—conducting “narrative analytics” as they call it—across more than 40 countries and working on other high-stakes issues, like climate change.

In the course of its work, Monitor 360 called in experts from different disciplines for answers—how can one understand what drives people’s behavior—and it wasn’t until they brought in anthropologists that Randall and company came to appreciate the value of “narrative.” In this context, we’re not talking about the voice of a narrator talking over a movie or whether a novel is written in first person or third person. Narratives as understood by Monitor 360 are deeply held belief systems that lead people to take certain actions.

Later, a U.S. intelligence agency hired Monitor 360 to understand “audience resonance”—how and why messages from politicians work on some audiences or not.

Randall reasons that the military and government deal with problems more complex than the ones businesses typically deal with, and to solve these problems, clarity is needed about their nature and the nature of the solutions.

In the past couple of years, Monitor 360 has moved toward conducting narrative analytics for corporate clients. Clients like Charles Schwab & Co. monitor narratives to impact sales strategy, Salesforce to better plan new market entry and PG&E to understand its employees’ beliefs so that it can effect organizational change. As with climate change or terrorism, Monitor 360 is trying to assist organizations with complex societal problems. For the Gates Foundation and its efforts to reform education, for instance, narrative analytics involves looking at what teachers think about curriculums, professional pathways, their own careers, and their perspectives on parents and kids.

Monitor 360 partners (left to right): Aaron Harms, CEO Doug Randall and Geoff Watson

Monitor 360 partners (left to right): Aaron Harms, CEO Doug Randall and Geoff Watson

Exactly how is Monitor 360 extracting these messages? They come from social media, traditional media and other sources of big data.

Monitor 360’s rigorous approach also ties back to the founder’s Wharton connections. Aaron Harms, WG’06, was recruited to Monitor 360 soon after he left Wharton. His first project was helping the federal government to understand the capabilities and requirements that its employees would need in the future. Randall met partner Geoff Watson, WG’97, at Wharton, and they’ve always intended to work together—though it took them more than a decade to do so. After running an education company in the Bay Area for eight years, Watson came on board in 2013. He couldn’t pass on the opportunity,

It’s not light work, but it’s relevant, innovative and powerful—so much so that the Monitor 360 team now sees its work everywhere it looks.

“It’s an incredibly sticky concept—you start to see the whole world through narratives,” Harms says.