Businesses today are drowning in data, and many don't have the resources to get their heads above water. As with countless other enterprise technologies, big data adoption and application hinges on having the right people.

Time alone is unlikely to address the gulf between the big data skills employers demand and their staffs' technical competence. According to CompTIA's "Second Annual Big Data Insights and Opportunities" report, even half of all businesses that consider themselves ahead of the big data adoption curve struggle with skill shortages. As these gaps widen, firms will struggle with data silos, diminished productivity and stiffer industry competition.

To manage big data talent costs and the pressure to keep up with emerging IT trends, organizations have two options: outsource to third-party big data specialists or develop internal expertise. With the McKinsey Global Institute estimating a shortage of almost 1.7 million big data workers by 2018, organizations must take some action now or set themselves up for bigger obstacles later. Most importantly, businesses must choose a strategy that best integrates into their existing operations with respect to cost, sustainability and desired results.

Outsourcing the skill gap

For businesses facing dire talent shortages and immediate project needs, outsourcing big data operations to a third party is often the fastest solution. Third parties that specialize in big data already have the skills and human capital to tackle virtually any project at a moment’s notice, bypassing the slow and costly process of sourcing and verifying talent internally. With one in three IT channel firms currently offering big data services — and even more planning to expand their big data portfolio — organizations seeking niche expertise have never had more options. Outsourced big data operations also enjoy a large degree of flexibility, with the ability to complement internal resources or completely manage your firm’s big data projects.

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But over time, outsourced big data operations can be an expensive proposition, and fail to address the challenge of rising talent costs, or the need to promote internal skills development. After all, any big data partner firm is likely struggling with the same hiring gaps as your organization. With this in mind, outsourcing makes the most sense when big data isn't a central component of your operations. Short-term or one-off initiatives, which are unlikely to justify the costs of an internal training or hiring program, are ideal opportunities for contracting external support.

Grooming in-house talent

For some businesses, the prospect of outsourcing all of their big data needs is impractical. In these instances, the best way to address the talent shortage is to launch an internal program geared to train and certify employees. Building in-house big data competency reduces talent acquisition costs and fosters more valuable innovation over the long term.

Businesses that go this route should deconstruct the processes and skills required for their individual data and analytics goals. Some of the top big data skills in demand today include real-time analytics, data mining, relational databases and predictive analytics capabilities, not to mention expertise with specific programs like Hadoop and NoSQL. Once companies identify their internal gaps, it's time to create a training program or put employees on a track to certification. Given the ongoing evolution of big data, such programs should instill skills that will retain value even as the industry changes, like data management and analysis best practices.

An important component of any internal training program is learning on the job: don’t be afraid to assign your teams complex or non-mission critical projects. Not every initiative will succeed, but your employees will learn and refine invaluable skills along the way.

Proactively closing the big data skill gap

Many businesses are already feeling the effects of the big data skills shortage, placing undue strain on talent sourcing and hiring efforts. To address the divide before it becomes unmanageable, businesses must be proactive — whether that means outsourcing to third-party specialists or developing internal talent. No matter what, inaction is not the answer. Business moves fast, but data moves faster. Organizations that address these challenges now will be better positioned to compete and thrive going forward.

How are you handling big data in your organization? Are you grooming in-house talent or are you outsourcing the skill gap?