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On its own, raw and uninterpreted, data means nothing

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
As we move ever further over the threshold into the new normal of a COVID-19 world, we are awash in data. There are algorithms that work out what we like, fed every time we click on a website or ‘like’ something on social media. Artificial intelligence knows more about us than we do ourselves, it knows more about our businesses.

Ultimately AI will lead to autonomous driving, autonomous shopping, perhaps even autonomous living – or will it? There’s data available on everything. Masses and masses of it, expanding every day as we add smart devices to our lives, tracking heartbeats and steps and even our pulse oxygen levels.

But what does it mean? On its own, raw and uninterpreted, absolutely nothing. In fact, in the wrong hands it could be catastrophic, like typing in Parys into the GPS and only realising that when you’ve crossing the Zambezi on your way north, rather than the Vaal, that you chose the wrong Paris.

There’s a gulf of difference between data, information and intelligence. Data in its raw form is just measurements; of temperatures, sentiments, inanimate things. To make sense of data, we categorise it to analyse it. It’s quantitative and qualitative. We try to interpret it in a way that adds value: data becomes information and in turn intelligence that we can use.

Living through this info-demic, it immediately becomes clear that data doesn’t just need to be analysed, it also needs to be intelligently interpreted and summarised. There’s a reason why CEOs and political leaders like position papers; they don’t have the time to do the research, to do the analysis of the data into information and the interpretation of the information into intelligence. They need it done for them so that they can look at the executive summary – what it means, here, now – to agree or disagree with it and order the necessary action. The ‘what?’ to the ‘so what?’ to the ‘now what?’

It’s one of the greatest ironies that the ostensible objective purity of information, on which we place so much importance, only becomes truly valuable when it is rendered into intelligence by the subjective input of those insightful and skilled enough to be able to interpret it within a specific context. Without that, data are just grains of sand on an endless beach. The key, to paraphrase the great poet William Blake, is to see heaven in that grain of sand. All too often though that heaven can be hell because the people analysing it don’t have the proper context and experience to interpret it or their agenda overrides all else.

In the end, then, we value subjectivity more than objectivity – intelligence more than information. But this is also the greatest risk that we face too. Whilst objective data is neutral and thus purpose-less, subjective interpretation is full of meaning created by the purpose it's intended for – but what meaning and whose purpose? Who interpreted it? What was the agenda? That’s often where it falls flat because as US author and entrepreneur Seth Godin reminds us, if you want the data to work; to get people to act, you’ve got to know what is it that it’s telling you and why that’s important for the people to hear.

Far too often, in business and in government, those at the top lose sight of the market or the constituents: the people themselves. In the process the message gets lost and the company or government pays the prices. We have seen this throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in the furious contest between the vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers.

Although it’s ostensibly a scientific argument, nothing could be further from the truth, it’s actually all about politics – just like climate change or species extinction. For any rational and, in my view, ethical, person reading the science, there shouldn’t be a choice; we have to cut our carbon emissions and pivot countries to renewable energy. Equally, we should get the vaccine when it is available, we should wear masks in public, wash our hands and keep our distance from each other.

The fact that we even have to have that discussion illustrates the greatest truth of all: politicians, not scientists hold the power. Even in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in living memory, politics trumps science. The world is run by politicians who bring together multiple interests, including often their own self-interest, and in the process derail the scientists and the critical discussions we need to have.

Scientists bemoan this state of affairs and rail against the politicians who wilfully don’t understand what is at stake. It’s easy to blame the politicians, but in truth, the scientists should look to themselves for not appreciating how the world works – and forging collaborations that work by marrying the message of their scientific data with people who have the power to effect real change.

As the great sage of our time, Yuval Noah Harari, said only last month, pandemics are no longer natural disasters, they’re now political failures. This is evident in the disparate trajectory of the pandemic across the world: the appalling runaway waves of infection in Brazil and Tanzania, continually mutating into new strains; as well as the vaccination dithering that has beset Europe leaving it at the mercy of a virulent third wave; and, ironically, boosting the popularity of Brexit.

The problem with human beings is that we are caught in a perpetual dance between science, objectivity, and the process of interpretation and the subjectivity that is brought to bear. It’s a messy dynamic, further muddied by our natural need to escape the complexity of uncertainty by being precisely right in what we do.

If COVID-19 has shown us anything it’s that we can’t be precisely right because the science has been changing and as our systems of knowledge have evolved and increased. Those who have waited for certainty have found themselves left behind, those who ignored it altogether have consigned their nations to the mercy of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating – and their own reputations to the scrapheaps of history. It’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.

At the end of the day, every decision we make is based on multiple imponderables. The decision we come to is the most valid hypothesis we can devise by marrying the cause and effect to all the facts and figures before us, but there’s no guarantee and there’s no certainty that it will work.

That’s no excuse not to act though – and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in government or in business. Truly ethical people get results. Study the data… and then trust your humanity, your gut – and act.

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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