Will Big Data And Analytics Deliver The Promised Land?

This post got published before I intended to publish it. Sorry for this oversight. I have now completed it as intended and am republishing it. I apologise for any inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.

What do B2B technology vendors sell?

No, it is not the technology.  Think again, what do B2B technology vendors sell?  They sell dreams that speak to a fundamental human need. What dreams? Dreams of control-mastery-domination over the ever flowing, every morphing, character of a process we turn into a noun: life.

What need do these dreams take root from and speak to?  The need for safety and security. At some fundamental level we get that nature is indifferent to our survival and wellbeing.  To deal with this anxiety we embrace anything that provides the illusion of safety-security. The Greeks embraced the Gods, we embrace technology and the latest technofix.

I notice that the big data and analytics space is hot right now.  It is the latest technofix being pushed by the B2B technology vendors.  It occurs to me that this technofix is designed to speak to those running large enterprises – especially those who are higher up and divorced from the lived experience of daily operational life at the coal face.

What I find astonishing is that so few actually ask the following two questions:

1. “What kind of a being is a human being?”

2. “What kind of a culture is human culture?”

What is the defining characteristic of human beings?

Allow me to illustrate by share a story I read many years ago:

Psychologist:  John, you have been referred to me by the authorities. They tell me that you think that are dead. Is that right? Are you dead?

John: Absolutely, I died a little while back.  I am dead. 

Psychologist: How interesting! You died a little back. Yet here you are talking with me. And I am not dead.  So how is it that you are dead and I am not dead, yet here we are talking? 

John: Beats me how this works or why it is happening. I know that I am dead. 

Psychologist: John, I have an idea. Do dead people bleed? 

John: Don’t be ridiculous! Everyone knows that dead people don’t bleed! 

The psychologist suddenly reaches over and cuts John’s hand with a knife. Both of them are looking at John’s hand. Blood, dark red blood, is seeping through the cut.  The psychologist looks at John with the look of satisfaction, of victory. Let’s rejoin the conversation.

Psychologist: John, do you see that blood on your hand? How do you make sense of it? You say that you are dead. And earlier you told me that dead people don’t bleed.

John: F**k me, dead people do bleed!

This is not simply an amusing story.  It is a story that captures the experience of a respected psychologist who has been dealing with many kinds of people, dealing with many kinds of problems, over a lifetime.  This story capture a fundamental truth of the human condition.

It appears that to survive in the world as it is and as we have made it, we need to be deluded. We need to distort reality: to make life more predictable, to make our current situation lighter-better than it is, to see a future brighter than is merited by the facts, to see ourselves stronger, more capable, more influential than we are. Studies suggest that those of us who lack this ability to distort reality and delude ourselves end up depressing ourselves.

What Kind Of A Culture Is Human Culture?

Symbolic and ideological.  Why?  Because human beings just don’t cope well with the world as it is. So we get together into tribes. And the glue that keeps the tribe together is a particular way of constructing the world, a particular way of giving meaning to the world, and a particular way of interacting with the world.  And when I speak world I include human being, and human beings; a human being is always a being-in-the-world as in always and forever an intrinsic thread in that which we call world.

The next question: which ideology do members of society espouse?  The dominant public ideology. In the world of business this is that of scientific management and in particular reasoning and making decisions objectively – irrespective of the past, of tradition, of our personal interests and opinions.

A more interesting question is that about the actual behaviour of the elites, the Tops. What is it that the Tops actually do?  They do that which protects and furthers their interests: their power, their status, their privileges, their wealth, their dominance.  So insight and recommendations (whether from big data and analytics or through conventional methods) that are in line with these interests are heartily accepted and actioned swiftly and vigorously.

Any insights and recommendations that challenge the vested interests of the elite (Tops) are repressed at the individual level, belittled-disputed-ignored at the societal level.  I invite you to read this article which can be summed up as the UK Government sacks the chair of the official Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Why? Because the chair was insisting on the reclassification of drugs. What happened?

  1. The Advisory Council looked at the data (of harm to the individual taking the drugs and others affected by his/her behaviour) on drugs at the request of the UK.

  2. On the basis of the data, the Advisory Council came up with the conclusion that “if drugs were classified on the basis of the harm they do, alcohol would be class A, alongside heroin and crack cocaine.”

  3. The drug rankings, associated findings and recommendations were ignored by the UK government. Why? Because they went against the government’s stance on drugs.

  4. The chair of the Advisory Council challenged the UK government’s refusal to act on the recommendations of the Advisory Council.  So the appropriate UK Government minister sacked him.

What Does The Future Hold for Big Data & Analytics?

If past behaviour is an adequate guide to the future then it is safe to say that technology vendors will get rich. And the business folks will have another layer of technology that they have to manage. One or two organisations may reap substantial benefits, the rest will be disappointed.  Yet, this disappointment will not last long. Why? By that time the technology folks will have come up with the latest technofix!

I leave you with the following thoughts:

1. There are no technofixes to the kinds of social issues-problems we continue to face;

2. Incremental improvements lie in the domain of big data and analytics;

3. Breakthroughs lie in our ability to see that which is with new eyes – a shift in dominant concepts, dominant paradigm, dominant ideology, dominant way of seeing that which is.

Put differently, big data & analytics is a red herring for those who aspire to lead: to cause-create that which does not exist today.  Managers, those whose horizon extends to daily operations and the next twelve months, may find big data and analytics useful – as long as it does not threaten the sacred cows of the Tops-Middles and the corporate culture.

Posted on May 25, 2014, in Customer Insight (inc VoC), Innovation, Leadership / Change / Transformation, Management and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. As a man who pedals data and analysis all day long I couldn’t agree more.

    People will only go with what the data is telling them if they happen to like the story

    James

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  2. Hi Maz,
    I couldn’t agree more with your statement ‘Put differently, big data & analytics is a red herring for those who aspire to lead: to cause-create that which does not exist today.’

    Data deals with the past and, it seems to me, that real breakthroughs and the leadership to achieve this break from what has been done in the past.

    Adrian

    Like

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