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March 11, 2013

Struggling with Big Data

March 11, 2013

Recently the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, gave a speech that outlined ways technology is changing business. Mostly the talk outlined how "big data" is the "next natural resource" and will drive our decision making as well as create individualized experiences. At the end of a Forbes article covering the speech a quote caught my eye:

"The greatest contribution of this shift, is that it will force every entity to become an authentic organization.” - Ginni Rometty

Why would big data force organizations to become authentic? Here's the logic as I see it:

1. A shift from "gut" to numbers. Although there should always be room for gut and instinct in business, data will allow us to simulate and test on a level that was unimaginable until just recently. 

2. Organizational culture will drive how data is used. A healthy organization will embrace the truths that data reveals and not blind themsleves with a "if it ain't broke" mentality. This requires embracing change which is difficult in an unhealthy organization. 

3. Data forces transparency and accountability. In the future businesses may be measuring how every minute of the day is spent and compensating employees on how they spend their time, how they leverage their network and how they manipulate data. This is most likely what Rometty means by "authentic", an organization that is is being honest with itself and in her mind that starts with its data.

4. Organizations that ignore their data will die. They will be passed by competitiors that creates better experiences for their customers and employees. Organizations that thrive will empower their employees to excel and they will use data to measure and reward those employees. 


To be honest, I'm not 100% comfortable with the "big data" revolution. I feel it takes some of the mystery out of life, exposing our predictability and routine while we envision ourselves to be creative and independent.

In many ways, "big data" reveals a tension between humans and machines. Although some see data as a product of our humanity, since we created it, others believe that we are essentially analog creatures with no discreet beginning and end, just as the colors of a rainbow seamlessly blend from one color to the next. This is more where I stand.

I see data as a simplification of observable actions. This has value as well as hazards. The hazards include missing nuances and larger trends. Our analog existence is infinitesimal. Data will always be forced to round.

Perhaps the coming challenge is not such how we adapt data to our lives but how it adapts to ours. I hope that we don't just roll over and let "big data" dictate how we live and work. Machines may capture discreet points of data from our activities but we should not confuse those pieces of data as being anything less than a rough sketch. Afterall, we are (at least for now) 100% analog beings.

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