In just a few years, big data has evolved from an emerging trend into a mainstream IT phenomenon. Organizations of all sizes are dealing with larger volumes of data, spread across a broader range of types and locations, compounded by the need to process and manage it all faster than ever before.

Though some might argue that the hype surrounding big data is growing faster than the data itself, one thing is abundantly clear: Businesses can no longer afford to ignore the challenges caused by exponential growth in data volume, velocity and variety -- otherwise known as "the three Vs.”

Part of the urgency is purely operational in nature -- in order to keep systems running smoothly and efficiently, businesses have no choice but to find more effective ways to manage the growing volumes of data that now permeate the organization. But just as important as the need to manage the pressures big data creates is the need to capitalize on the opportunity it affords to make smart, insightful decisions.

In the modern economy, a business that’s not data-driven in its decision making is one that’s not apt to remain competitive for very long.

With that in mind, here are five steps businesses can take to both insulate themselves from the pressures big data creates and take advantage of the opportunities it presents.

1. Convert Data into Information

There’s a big difference between data and information. Data, in a vacuum, is not incredibly valuable. The value comes from an organization’s ability to convert data into information that can be used to drive informed business decisions. But most organizations are so overwhelmed by their volumes of data that they don’t know where to begin the process of converting it into information.

The key is to start with a business question to which the answer is not already known. The question should be specific and narrow in its focus, and it should be driven by the business, not by the IT department’s desire to experiment with a given technology. Articulating a specific, business-driven question helps focus efforts and makes the task of converting data into information more manageable and attainable.

2. Embrace Data Agnostically

We now operate in a world where the proliferation of multiple data types in multiple locations is the norm. Despite this new reality, too many organizations still try to confine data into a single platform, source or location, and many still make blanket decisions about which data is or isn’t useful based on nothing more than its perceived value. Instead, organizations should embrace data agnostically and prioritize the ability to connect to all data types, in all locations. Only by embracing data agnostically can companies truly discover the valuable insights hidden within non-traditional data types such as video, social media and sensor data.

3. Put People in Control

In many organizations, tools, not people, are in control. In other words, the tools an organization uses have come to define what is and isn’t possible. Decisions are based on what a given set of tools can and cannot track or do. Saying “this is what the tool tracks” is often seen as a justifiable explanation for the limitations of a given analysis.

Employees, not tools, should shape the organization’s information management. That’s why it’s time to embrace the concept of self-service data access and visualization. This will put the power back in the hands of people, empowering them to use their domain expertise to make key decisions.

4. Augment, Augment, Augment

Too often, organizations feel resigned to live with the IT solutions they already have in place. Though users are well aware of the current system’s limitations, they’d rather continue with a flawed approach than have to learn -- and perhaps more importantly, pay for -- an entirely new one.

The mistake here isn’t necessarily in being averse to ripping and replacing, but rather in believing that the status quo or rip-and-replace are the only options. That’s simply not the case. Many great solutions exist now that are complementary in nature, designed to help organizations get more out of the investments they’ve already made and the systems on which their users are already comfortable.

5. Evenly Deploy Governance

Though generally seen as a function of technology, governance should be a key consideration for both IT and line of business. Respect for governance should be embraced across all functional areas, and by all users in a given big data initiative. In no uncertain terms, governance is everyone’s responsibility and should be evenly deployed throughout an organization. They key to making this happen is collaboration. When IT and line-of-business collaborate, the result is an organizational culture where priorities are clear, objectives uniform, and most importantly, nothing falls through the cracks.