Data: it’s just notation, not reality

The always fascinating Donald Farmer, former Qlik exec and now Treehive Strategy principal, has news for users of data business: “Data isn’t the real world.” It’s just a reflection that’s framed by stories we tell ourselves.

Stories come first, contrary to the data industry’s dubious vision. Data, the marketing likes to imply, is a divine compass from a virginal birth. Just get some and you’ll know the way.

There was no virginal birth for data but, as Donald Farmer illustrates, there is jazz. In his presentation to two dozen industry experts at this year’s annual Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit, you can try this: Force a John Coltrane song into musical notation, then give it to 10 jazz musicians. They’ll produce 10 different songs — and not one will be Coltrane’s song.

“People say we’re recording [business events],” said Donald, “but we’re not. We’re notating it. It’s a representation. Sampling is more like it.” He’s not the first one to say such things, but it takes someone of Donald’s authority to win much notice.

Data needs interpretation, and that’s always based on assumptions. “When we say we ‘lost an opportunity,'” he said, “that’s just a story we tell ourselves.” Sales people often come back from meetings gloomy about lost sales. “They say, ‘I’m going to miss my quarterly target, or my girlfriend will leave me because I couldn’t give her the vacation I promised.’ We think that’s the real world.”

The “lost” sale may be not be lost for long, such as when the prospect comes back in six months after the competitor failed to deliver. The salesperson may also cultivate a trusted-advisor role and win in the long run. And the girlfriend leaving just because she couldn’t go to Cancun, well, maybe that’s a good thing.

Even in IoT (Internet of Things), what’s assumed to be pure data, hot off the sensor, was configured based on beliefs. What is “just a binary signal” is limited, for example, to a given spectrum.

What’s a business person to do? Farmer suggests that data users “walk back down the ladder” and to inspect any unconsciously adopted limits. There, on the lower rungs of the mind, you might find unfounded assumptions, stories, and alternate premises.

Donald’s observations stirred up concerns, of course. Suzanne Hoffman, veteran BI software executive now with ZenOptics, asked about the effect of too many individual interpretations. “That’s chaos,” she said. “You can’t have that.” Donald replied that that’s just competitive advantage: “Businesses do things in different ways,” he said. Suzanne: “Isn’t the goal of methodology to accept thinking ‘outside the box’?” Donald: “Methodology can get in the way of doing that.”

Merv Adrian, vice president of research at Gartner, said, “It’s the difference between implicit and explicit…We live every day in the implicit set of choices and the ideology that represents. … If we can deconstruct how we got here, we might make different choices.”

Ideology is embedded even in the design of analysis tools. Tableau makes certain things easy for those assumed to be using it, skilled analysts (at least according to Qlik dogma). They are different from the users Qlik assumes it serves, everyday business people. Qlik’s users, less skilled in analytics, won’t have to face statistically-laden trend lines, Donald explains — though he hasn’t yet said what Qlik offers instead.

Donald’s forthcoming book will go into far more depth on the subject in the first half. The second half will address handling ambiguity. He expects it to be out in the second quarter of 2018.

One comment

  1. Ted Cuzzillo says:

    Dr. Barry Devlin points out a similar point he made in his 2013 book Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics and Big Data.

    Here’s an excerpt of a post of his on B-Eye-Network, which itself was excerpted from the book.

    …[H]ow does insight arise in the human process of decision making? Of course, information does play an important role, but the information we focus on in BI is but a very thin sliver of the actual information that the mind takes into account. Today, neurobiology and psychology tells us that our minds are absorbing information from the earliest days of life, and that such pre-verbal information has significant and unconscious impact on all of the decisions we make during our lives. Such early information conditions our social behavior and expectations of the world. In a similar, although probably in a somewhat more conscious manner, later life experiences create an informational background that colors our thinking in each and every decision we take.

    BI purists may argue that such information is unquantifiable and therefore should be discounted. …

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