Value is sometimes inadvertently drowned in a pool of acronyms. An important universal concept can be – and often is – easily obscured by a clever catch phrase. So when a toy industry executive recently asked me what “big data” could mean to them, and if they aren’t already too big for CRM, I had to think of a way to explain the two.

They don’t call me “Geek Whisperer” for nothing.

It all rests in the concept of “data”. To me, data is a highly commutable noun that can mean literally any type of information that can be transported, transacted, and acted upon. It is the subject and the object, the perpetrator and the evidence that results from the act.

For most businesses – particularly non-tech businesses – data is hard to define, which is what makes the question of its actual utility all the more vexing. When a company is considering an investment that is fueled by or spins off data, the feeling is, “Yes, we want this. Now, what do we want it for again?”

For this particular executive and her toy company, the question of how to relate with the customer is a fair one. The company’s business model has always been to manage lineal inches of shelf space at big-box retail. Technically their customer isn’t Mom or a kid, it’s a small handful of retail buyers. Social media is an experimental way to handle customer service; Facebook is an extension of the web site which itself is a cost center with no real proven value.

In short, for her and her business “data” is, at best, a tool that a quant in the marketing department consults to optimize something.

OK, on to the punch line.

This executive asked me about big data and CRM. I responded thusly: “Big data knows you’re gay. CRM knows why it’s not a good time right now to tell your parents.”

She smiled and said, “So, basically, we can’t react quickly enough to convert Big Data into CRM, and we’re not ready for the work of CRM as it is.” I said, “No, actually you need to start on both right now, because there is a lag between start-up and usefulness that you want to get through.”

So we agreed to meet for lunch next month. About which more later.