The Insight Deficit and the dangers of big data

6 minute read

Sometimes out of the recesses of our minds a flicker of curiosity emerges. That is always a good thing. Here is a question. Is the pace of technological change coupled with the rapid explosion of data a good thing? 90% of all the world’s data has been created in the last two years. How does it shape how we think about the world, our place in it, and the impact we have? Technology has enabled an unparalleled velocity of innovation, collaboration and communication. There has never been a time like this. Individuals can do more with their minds than ever before. The choices we make are important. Why do we seem to want to fill our minds with other people’s lives measured in 140 character data chunks, photo streams or videos? Why does it seem that everyone wants to be an icon, replacing last century’s 15 minutes of TV fame with followers, page views and clicks? Is iconic status a prerequisite to achievement or contribution?

I started thinking about this in context of business and in particular in how the proliferation of data, almost free availability of CPU cycles, and the ubiquity of information impacts today’s buyers and sellers. It began as a question of how to help guide today’s sales challengers, relationship builders and their leaders to adopt a customer-first approach to the buyer/seller dance. Prompted by our most successful product launch ever, I considered what the world might look like if all that data that is available was used to intelligently align customers and suppliers. But as I pondered these interactions it gave me reason to pause.

Selling is fundamentally about people, their connections, relationships, interdependence and reciprocity of value. So my thinking evolved (as we must all do) to consider the human condition as the fulcrum on which we all teeter, in business and in life. It began as a reflection on big data and the dangerous conclusions presented without any reflection. Unquestionably there is an insight deficit.There is too much big data and too few big questions.

Steve Jobs has said that you can’t connect the dots into the future.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. (Does that imply that if you do then same things over and over again that you may in fact be able to connect dots into the future?)

Pierre-Simon Laplace hypothesized that given perfect knowledge we could make perfect predictions.

Perhaps somewhere in the mélange of these three geniuses’ perspectives is the truth. As we trend towards perfect knowledge, albeit in limited domains, we might think that our ability to derive insights that should shape our future behavior increases. But I would suggest that it isn’t commonly so. Context for our derivations is frequently lacking and always changing.

I fear that we don’t stop and think. We don’t consider. In corporate-land we juggle the fridge-magnet vocabulary of business-speak without critical assessment. We consume bumper sticker pronouncements in 140 character chunks without taking the time to digest. But we continue to ingest.

But if you understand the need that drove the technological disruptions, or the pressures that face your customers, then you can understand how to meet or shape those needs. Is all of the technology that is now available to us actually making us more human again? Does the speed of interaction mean that we have to think more about who we are trying to reach or influence, how we connect, how they connect, how we share, how we discover? You have to feel it, let it touch you, but not forget that it touches others.

From a sales perspective: Should this be at the core of your account planning with your customers, or the compass that guides your sales process design, or the guiding principle behind your sales and marketing alignment efforts? Is account management primarily about getting more revenue from your customers, or is it the path to finding mutual value? I would suggest that if you use the latter as your destination, you will arrive at the former.

Maybe the best thing that technology gives you now is a greater opportunity for empathy. Perhaps the signals we get from the Social Universe inform but not overshadow the stimuli of our own thoughts. That might allow us to consider context, texture and outcomes as something we shape and question rather than allow ourselves to be carried along by the Insight Deficit, a tsunami of data that is spewing spurious correlations that lack insight in, or empathy for, personal, business or global consequences.

As I reflected on this during the quiet period at the turn of the year I resolved that our role at The TAS Group in 2015 is to help our customers address this Insight Deficit; to guide them along the path to Smart Sales Transformation and help them make sense of it all, and uncover choices that they might make based, not just on correlations from ‘big data’, but rather by, the combination of knowledge, context, some smart reasoning, and indeed data to distinguish causation from correlation, to leverage internal insights, and to apply the increasing available smart systems to guide their journey.

Our own journey continues to be informed by the gracious contributions of great thinkers, leaders, innovators, and philanthropists that we are privileged to encounter among our customers and broader ecosystem. We endeavor to learn from their experiences and extract their wisdom.

I am concerned about the Insight Deficit and the damage that will occur as we rush headlong into data analysis without data enrichment, correlation without causation, prediction without prescription, and all without measured consideration.

Customer-first in business is really just a microcosm of people-first in the broader context.

Surely that merits some thought.


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