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.
Brooks 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.