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Perspectives | Issue 6

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

Absolute Certainty Will Always Be Elusive, Even In the Information Age

July 14, 2016

(Sorry, Big Data…)

When it comes to making sense of our surroundings, common sense and gut instinct are as important as ever.

If there is one thing that bridges human experience across the ages it is a deep fear of the unknown.

Over time, humans have tried to prepare for the unknown in many ways, including digging moats and fortifying walls against unexpected enemy attack. We may not deal with unforeseen threats in quite the same way today, but our obsession with trying to eliminate them is arguably more intense—and more costly—than ever before.

As technology and trade have abolished traditional borders, fear of the unknown has understandably escalated. Businesses face more direct exposure than ever to variables and pressures they cannot control. This is especially true where, as in Canada, there is significant leverage to global commodity cycles.

But just as technology has amplified the challenge, it has also provided a solution. Or at least, that is the claim.

One thing is certain: Technology has given great uplift to the current C-suite cult of “evidence-based decision-making.” The appeal of Big Data, which is expected to grow into a $50 billion-a-year market by 2019, is the promise that information technology can vanquish that primordial fear of the unknown. The bigger the budget for real-time data warehouses, analytics software and beta-busting PhDs, the tighter the grip on all those unforeseen dangers. Right?

Maybe. But then, maybe not.

There is no question that thorough research is an essential component of every successful strategy. The use of qualitative and quantitative research provides a clear road map for success; users of such research can zoom in on specific intersections where stakeholder agendas converge. In turn, that informs a refined understanding of the avenues for influence and the bridges for support of issues.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that the greater the mass of data, the more useful it is. Neither are the insights from data analytics magically transformed into a competitive advantage. That requires an aligned corporate culture and a number of other complex processes that manage data, analyze it in ways that enhance understanding and make changes that reflect those new insights.

Another limitation of the increased dependence on Big Data is the expectation it creates. The more an organization invests in a specific technology, the more reluctant it is to acknowledge its limitations. Inevitably, there is an institutionalized inclination to dismiss any information or warning signals that don’t conform to the expected outcome.

By extension, the heightened emphasis on “evidence-based decision-making” downplays an important factor: gut instinct. Instinct is discounted as primitive and unreliable because it defies the metrics and algorithms in which the corporate “decision tree” is so deeply rooted. It has been even further discredited in many circles by Donald Trump’s claim that he bases his political positions on instinct rather than fact.

However suspicious we may be of our own innate behaviour and reactions, instinct has its place. After all, it has, to a great extent, brought us all this far.

While “fight or flight” standoffs should perhaps not become the new norm in business meetings, instinct should still matter in a decision. It remains a legitimate—if unfashionable—counterbalance to the highly processed and quantifiable insights gleaned from Big Data and other such sources.

It doesn’t stop there.

The same is true of the lost art of listening—really listening. We are so technologically empowered to express our opinions and frame our own narrative, we often forget the basics. Few things have contributed to our long-term survival as much as paying close attention to our surroundings, differentiating and responding to the various sounds we hear.

Finally, for any business, a healthy fear of the unknown is not necessarily a bad thing. There are few greater threats than a false sense of security. And to date, there is no algorithm to defend against it.

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