Data, Data Everywhere and Not a Thought to Think

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Oh come on people – data is not the be-all and end-all. It’s just a tool. And in some cases it’s just a crutch!

Seth Godin put it simply in a recent post: Too much data leads to not enough belief.

Business plans with too much detail, books with too much proof, politicians with too much granularity… it seems as though more data is a good thing, because data proves the case.
In my experience, data crowds out faith. And without faith, it’s hard to believe in the data enough to make a leap.

Mitch Joel put it simply as well when quoting Richard Binhammer Dell’s Social Media team who said that ROI was nothing more than an accounting term and probably has little to no place when it comes to measuring the success of any Social Media marketing initiative.

Can I get a word of caution about throwing out the data with the bathwater?

Data Is Not the Enemy

I’m on an email discussion list called Internet Oldtimers and, while I am sworn to secrecy and may not quote anything posted there (and it gets heated sometimes) I can divulge an argument happens every so often about how analytics is killing creativity.

I engaged in this discussion up to my limit of trying to argue facts with religious fanatics. It brings me back to the days when graphic artists were up in arms about Photoshop. It wasn’t really art. It wasn’t design. It was fake. It was computerized! Sorry my artist friends, it’s just a tool.

I get my knickers in a twist when I come across Edward Tufte’s essay on the evils of PowerPoint. Hey Ed – Love ya man, it’s just a tool! And in some cases it’s just a crutch. You might as well quail against the horrible roller ball point pen and how it’s destroyed correspondence along with penmanship.

Data is good. Data is valuable. Just don’t be black and white about it. You can use data to help you and you can use data to trap yourself.

When she was vice president of global sales and marketing operations at Symantec Corporation, Kim Johnston put it in perspective after a keynote she gave at an eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit. I asked her about the tough issues she faced. Her presentation showed a company well in tune with measurement and happy to analyze any and all data that came their way.

She had the usual stories of some people or groups or whole departments that were still non-believers. They liked to do things by the seat of their pants because they always had and it usually worked. But Kim revealed that there was a small but growing type of push back she was getting from the less resilient variety of marketing, advertising and promotions manager – lack of gut feeling.

Kim said that these people were stymied when there was not enough data. They couldn’t trust themselves to make an educated guess. They were afraid to illuminate the rest of us with their spark of insight if they didn’t have three decimal points of numerical proof.

What prompted me to finally spout off today was Roger Martin’s Harvard Business Review post called Management by Imagination. Roger opined that,

… however comforting it can be to stick with what we can measure … we won’t see what we’re missing because we don’t know what it is that we don’t know. By sticking simply to what we can measure, we come to imagine a small and constrained world in which we are prisoners of a ‘reality’ that is in fact an edifice we’ve unknowingly constructed around ourselves.

Further, he stated:

The future is about imagination, not measurement. To imagine a future, one has to look beyond the measurable variables, beyond what can be proven with past data.

And finally:

For the abduction logician, the world is expansive and the possibilities are endless. For the measurement types, the world is a brutal place, full of nasty surprises that are impossible to predict. That is why any expression that starts with “if you can’t measure it” is dangerous for your managerial health.

When did the world become so overwhelmingly black and white? Was it the Age of Reason that caused us to turn completely away from the mystical and unexplainable in favor of the intellectual proof? Is that where the division between East and West started? To quote David Weinberger (co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto) the universe is analog, messy, complex and subject to many interpretations.

Trust Your Instincts

Joseph Carrabis’s writing and work got me started on the exploration of the human mind. I’ve really enjoyed his Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History which lead me to Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom and How We Decide by Johan Leher.

Our decisions are emotionally based and rationally… rationalized.

“I want a new car.” This comes from the belly of the beast. It’s a desire.

“I deserve a new car.” This is the first rationalization – very emotionally based.

“I should get a new car.” Here are ten logical reasons I should have a new car so you can’t try to talk me out of it!

Does anybody remember Dr. Joyce Brothers? I tripped over this quote from her, “Trust your hunches. They’re usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level.” That’s close, but not quite the cigar. It’s positively neural. Individual neurons learn what to expect and respond sharply when the expected doesn’t happen (the so-called “oh shit neuron). Little, tiny unexpected things can cascade to create a feeling that something just isn’t right.

The opposite holds true. Little, tiny expected things can cascade into a feeling of discovery. “That’s it!” Intuition.

As Seth Godin ended his blog post, “Relying too much on proof distracts you from the real mission–which is emotional connection.

Or as Albert Einstein put it, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Data is a servant. Go with your intuition and then run some tests to see if your feelings are right. Don’t rely on data to “prove” anything. We all know that data can’t be trusted – but that’s a subject for another blog post….

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One Response to Data, Data Everywhere and Not a Thought to Think

  1. Pingback: Feelings Have a Place in Web Analytics | Online Behavior

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