Last Octo­ber, I com­ment­ed on the cur­rent trend of rely­ing on “big data” to help in deci­sion think­ing [ see post ]. David Brooks, in a recent post for The New York Times, gave an inter­est­ing twist to the same area of dis­cus­sion. He opens with the sto­ry a bank exec­u­tive who decid­ed — despite all data urg­ing the con­trary — to keep doing businss in econonom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly chal­lenged-Italy. Said Brooks of what the banker did:

He wasn’t obliv­i­ous to data in mak­ing this deci­sion, but ulti­mate­ly, he was guid­ed by a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing. And, of course, he was right to be. Com­merce depends on trust. Trust is reci­procity coat­ed by emo­tion. Peo­ple and com­pa­nies that behave well in tough times earn affec­tion and self-respect that is extreme­ly valu­able, even if it is hard to cap­ture in data.

The argu­ments against rely­ing on big data (and big data only) are, for Brooks: (1) it over­looks emo­tion­al mat­ters, (2) it can’t fac­tor in con­text, (3) it often leads to oth­er data cor­re­la­tions that could be sig­nif­i­cant, (4) it is lim­it­ed in the size and scope of prob­lems it can address, (5) it can­not account for a rapid change of peo­ple’s taste for a new prod­uct or ser­vice and (6) big data analy­sis is always struc­tured accord­ing to some­body’s per­son­al val­ues, which are usu­al­ly ignored when mak­ing a deci­sion.

TeamworkBrooks nice­ly rein­forces a point I set out to stress in my post: big data is pow­er­ful but often miss­es the sub­tleties uncov­ered by the impor­tance of joint reflec­tion on mul­ti­ple obser­va­tions, var­i­ous ways to organ­ise what’s observed, and orig­i­nat­ing a fore­sense of what’s to come.

As Brooks notes at the end of his post, big data is one tool to con­sid­er. It’s the over-reliance on big data that is dan­ger­ous. Big data and any effort that relies on human sens­ing should be seen as com­ple­men­tary rather than either/or choic­es. This is espe­cial­ly true in big com­pa­nies in which there are many resources and cus­tomer inter­ac­tions to draw upon.

Most impor­tant­ly, this busi­ness of find­ing one’s next will always be a mix­ture of art and sci­ence. That’s what Brooks is so right to point out that per­son­al val­ues can nev­er be dis­missed. And, when one does choose to take a step that threat­ens seri­ous dis­rup­tion of the way things are — that is, when a prod­uct or ser­vice is out in front or on the lead­ing edge — it can be a bumpy ride. First-movers can find that they have advan­tages (think Seiko, which sold the first quartz watch) and dis­ad­van­tages (think of that “Titan­ic” of auto­mo­biles, the Ford Edsel).

Big data may help you find the future, but it won’t get you there all by itself.

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