Finding Intelligence in a Data-rich Universe

24 01 2011

Sarah and I went to see Trans-Cool Tokyo at the Singapore Art Musuem this week. There was much to intrigue, but the item I found most impactful was an installation of 10 data-projectors, projecting… data. Data.matrix [no 1-10] by Ryoji Ikeda comprises screens packed with data, sometimes all in sync, more often covering different subjects. So one screen would be plotting the positions of stars across the night sky, another comparing DNA chromosones, a third rotating a giant hydro-carbon molecule in 3d and a fourth a complex building structure. Sounds like something only a database programmer could love (okay, I confess) but to me it also connected at a much deeper level. This universe is so big beyond our experience that we almost can’t see it; seeing this rich sampling of the universe as datum-points (within their various  conceptual and analytical frameworks) somehow made the universe itself more tangible – and yet quite undiminshed.

Which brings me to the mundane: does your organisation have a universe of data; or is there intelligence as well? I am regularly astonished by the number of organisations which collect extensive or even comprehensive data and then base their operations upon everyone’s perceptions of how their business works. One of those perceptions tends to be “yes, we looked at the data”; the reality tends to be far short of even an impressionistic overview of the data.

As Mark Twain so helpfully pointed out, there are indeed “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics”. Data analysis with an agenda (other than the agenda of trying to find out what the truth is) can be a pretty dangerous matter; and we cannot be expected to police ourselves when it comes to tendentiousness – it can be entirely unconscious. But data can yield insights when properly handled;  especially insightful questions. (The strength of Action Learning as originally formulated by Reg Revans, is its emphasis on “Q” – Questing Insight over and above “P” – Programmed Knowledge.)

So, good, you have data. Data on your operations, data on your people, data on your finances. What were the three best questions you asked your data in each of those domains in the last 90 days. If you struggle to answer that, it might be time to relaunch the search for Intelligence in your Data Universe…

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