Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part Create Smarter Businesses series. The two subsequent articles are scheduled to appear in June and July. 

In the technology-driven age, data plays a vital role in helping distributors gain a competitive advantage. Both structured and unstructured data have the potential to unlock valuable operational patterns and trends that decision makers can use to improve processes. To reap full benefits, business leaders must first understand the two types of data, how they work, and their capabilities.

What is the difference?

Key ways in which structured and unstructured data differ are in the methods to manage and extract them. Structured data is data that has a semblance of organization. It refers to traditional, clearly defined data types that are easily searchable, broken down, and processed by data analytics tools. It consists mainly of files of well-organized basic information that is easy to input, store, use, digest, and analyze. This includes a customer’s name, addresses, and contact and financial information, which has been organized into a straightforward table or format, broken down into labelled rows and columns. This high level of organization means that structured data is highly accessible and can be easily analyzed using algorithms and tools.

On the other hand, unstructured data is all information with a lack of structure. This consists of all items that aren’t easily classified into labeled tables and can include emails, images, webpages, PDF files, and documents to name a few. Basically, anything that doesn’t contain a set record format and can come in any shape or form. Additionally, newer unstructured sources include Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, social media, and mobile apps. Unstructured information that can easily be pulled from emails, including all organized uniform field content, such as send date, subject line, and sender. However, the more valuable content, such as the main body of the message, is much harder to categorize, as there may be multiple topics and layers that need to be analyzed before a conclusion can be drawn on the data’s value or categorical assignment. Therefore, unstructured data differs from structured primarily in that it is significantly harder to manage and analyze. This is the reason why many businesses choose to use only data from organized sources, with up to 78 percent of organizations actually having little or no understanding of their unstructured data.


Structured and unstructured data are both important in providing a full snapshot of business operations. Gartner notes that unstructured data “tends to be the human-generated and people-oriented content that does not fit neatly into database tables.”

The amount of unstructured data continues to increase at a much more rapid pace as people have more ways to create data and content. In fact, it is estimated that during the last five years, of all data generated, at least 80 percent is unstructured. This rings true for distributors, who still receive 74 percent of orders via email. This means a significant pool of unstructured data is still sitting in email channels with critical operational and customer insights that could be untapped. For example, unstructured data that resides in formats like emailed orders could be analyzed so distributors have a complete view of customer order transactions and the true cost to serve each customer.

As digital disruption continues to shape the industry, distributors should consider technology tools that can help them extract unstructured data to garner newer data points for additional insights. There are digital solutions available that can convert information from unstructured sources, such as emailed orders, into easily analyzed data. Such data can then be used to inform strategies to improve efficiency of daily operations. For example, understanding the preferred time of day customers tend to place orders allows decision-makers to allocate resources to increase efficiency during peak order times.

In today’s business world, where valuable data points can be found in many sources, decision-makers need to maximize use of both structured and unstructured data to gain a more holistic and accurate view of operations. If a key data point, like unstructured data, is ignored, they may lose out on potential business intelligence that can drive growth.