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.

What is the ‘secret sauce’ of success?

What is the ‘secret sauce’ of this company’s success?

I was at a gathering where the topic of ‘secret sauce’ came up in the context of the ‘secret sauce’ of the company’s success.  After the main forum I ended up in a conversation with two colleagues  – one of whom (D) had posed the ‘secret sauce’ question and other of whom (J) has been working with me on a recent consulting engagement.  Talking about ‘secret sauce’ J pointed out what he sees as my secret sauce: analytical skills, financial skills, workshop facilitation skills, consulting skills, being straight with clients, articulating my point of view, getting along with people……

What is my ‘secret sauce’? Is it what it seems to be?

Does my secret sauce come down to a bunch of skills, behaviour, frameworks and tools?  Is it possible that what J is pointing at are simply the visible aspects of the iceberg and the ‘secret sauce’ is hidden from view especially from those with a scientific orientation which neglects the inner dimensions of the human being? If I have a ‘secret sauce’ then it lies in my inner dimension – my being, my stance, the context from which I operate, how I see myself.

What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is CARING?  I care deeply about this client – the people who have placed their trust in me. I care deeply about the what we (the client and I) are up to – the project we have taken on, the outcome which we wish to manifest in this world. I care deeply about the impact this will have on the lives of prospects and customers who touch this business.  I care deeply about how it will impact/improve the lives of the people who work within this business;.  And I care deeply about excellence – doing great work impeccably.

What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is the conscious choice to operate from a context of service and of contribution – of making a difference to the quality of our lives and the ‘workability’ of the world that we share?  Yes, I am straight with people and that includes sharing/disclosing what they do not necessarily want to hear.  What J does not see is that I can only be straight because this being straight arises out of this context of service.  What J does not see is that when it does not matter, when it does not contribute to the game I am playing, I strive to keep my mouth shut.  Furthermore, what J does not see is that in my consulting work I operate from the  educational/coaching paradigm:  I help clients see, explore and get to grips with the options that are available to them and once this is done I make it clear that the responsibility for choosing the path lies with them as it is ‘their baby’ and I am simply the ‘midwife’ – they have to live with the consequences of their choices whereas I can walk away.

Lessons

Am I sharing this with you because I am on an ego trip today?  Possibly and I hope not.  I am sharing this with you to point out the following:

  • We live in a culture where the default is to look for success recipes that take away the inherent uncertainty, unpredictability, messiness of life and replace it with certainty, security, guarantees;
  • The number of explanations for anything that shows up is limited only by the number of worldviews / ideologies / perception filters that are available and used to make sense of the ‘situation/data at hand’;
  • We live in a culture where our search for these recipes is often only on the outside – that which is visible to the naked eye;
  • Often the recipes don’ work out because we only looked at the surface and did not dig deeper to get at the true ‘secret sauce’.

This probably occurs as ‘abstract and intellectual’ to you so let me share some example with you to make it more concrete.  Lets start with Honda to show how smart people can come up with multiple interpretations based on their worldview or the secret-sauce they want to promote (because they have a vested interest in promoting it).

Honda: what was the secret sauce behind Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike market?

What accounts for Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike industry back in the 60s/70s?  The answer depends on the worldview that you hold, the lens that you use to pose that question and dig around for answers.  Here are three different answers due to three different lenses:

“The first is the BCG Report [1975] story of Honda’s cost advantage, developed (the story goes) by the successful exploitation of scale and learning, and of the “segment retreat” response of British and American competitors. Anyone who received an MBA between 1979 and 1985 was almost certainly exposed to this version of history.

The second, explicated by Pascale [1984], offers a revisionist account of Honda’s motorcycle success.’ According to Pascale’s interview with six Honda executives, the company’s early scale in Japan came from its having a better product, flowing from design skills. Furthermore, Honda did not “target” specific market segments in the U.S., but rather showed an ability to experiment, to learn quickly from mistakes, to rapidly revise design problems, and thereby to discover opportunities.

The third, described by Prahalad & Hamel [1989, 1990], couples Honda’s success in motorcycles with its successful entry into the U.S. automobile market. Here the center of the story is Honda’s remarkable ability to go from “nowhere” to prominence despite the earlier entry of very efficient competitors like Toyota and Nissan. Prahalad and Hamel have given the names “intent” and “stretch” to the processes which underlay this success and the name “core competence” to the central skills and abilities that Honda built upon.”

If you want to read more then check out / download the following:  HONDA Enters Into US

Zappos: what is the secret sauce?

If you read about Zappos the taken for granted answers are: culture and wow service.  One or more astute observers have also noted logistics – Zappos wow service is enabled in part because Zappos has a finely tuned logistics operation that can get goods quickly to customers.   So is that the secret sauce?

I say that these are simply the visible manifestations of the secret sauce.  I say that if you read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh you will find that the secret sauce is Tony Hsieh.  Tony has a particular philosophy: living a meaningful life, an affinity for people, an affinity for fun, strongly family ethos, a desire to get into and be a part of the nuts and bolts of business, getting that when you create happiness you are the first one to be lifted by this happiness.  And everything that is visible at Zappos is a manifestation of Tony Hsieh.

Starbucks: what is the secret sauce?

Is it the quality of the coffee?  Is it the location of the stores?  Is it the layout / feel of the stores?  Perhaps it is the baristas that serve customers?  Maybe it is the machinery and the processes?

From where I stand I am clear that the secret sauce is Howard Schultz.  Go read “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At a Time” and “Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul”.  Read deeply enough and you are likely to find that Starbucks is simply the manifestation of Shultz’s love of coffee, the coffee experience and his stance/relationship towards ordinary people.

Schultz knows first hand what happens to people and families when people are not treated well, recognised, acknowledged, not given an opportunity to develop, to progress, to shine.  So is it a surprise that he fought so hard to give the barista’s – part time employees – pay and rights (including medical coverage) that were unheard of in the retail industry?

What happened when he handed over the reins?  Starbucks did lose its soul – the person who replaced Shultz was not Schultz and did not live Shultz’s philosophy  when it came to the quality of the coffee, the coffee experience, how people should be treated…..  Incidentally, I do know that Howard Behar and is philosophy about people and relationships complemented and made a big impact on Schultz and how he ran Starbucks.

Final thought

Be skeptical of any and all ‘secret sauces’ that are put forward.  Why?  For any phenomenon a multiplicity of stories can be constructed to explain and give meaning to that phenomenon.  The number of stories is limited only by the imagination and the number of voices that get to speak and be heard.  Furthermore, perhaps the challenge is to come up with, create, construct ‘secret sauces’ rather than find existing ones.  Where would Apple be if it had looked for the ‘secret sauce’ rather than invented it?  Where would Starbucks be?  Where would Facebook be?  Where would Google be (remember that Yahoo was the master of the online universe then)?