We Have Big Data But Do We Also Have The Big Picture?
I envy doctors, lawyers, accountants and plumbers. At a cocktail party or any time one of them is confronted with the usual icebreaker question, “So what do you do?” they have ready and concise answers. Me? Not so much. The situation starts to go downhill just after I say “software industry analyst” and I need to explain that, no, I’m not a financial analyst, someone who figures out if a company is a good money making investment. I am simply one of the guys who tries to understand if the stuff works and where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
So I think of my job and the jobs of my colleagues as a mix of social research and technology, but that’s just another rat hole to go down because social research is considered frivolous in some circles, notably government of all places.
Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times today about a quixotic attempt by some in congress to cut funding for social research, which, to my mind, is akin to eliminating the quality control steps in manufacturing. “How do we know what we know?” is an age old question made essential in a complex world where claims and counter claims make the rounds and interested consumers of information seek a handhold on reality.
We’ve never had as much data as we have right now in business and in seeking its meaning we pursue the big picture, our North Star, the thing that gives us direction and helps us to make rational decisions based on facts. There is nothing more important in business today. So, business gets it and there has never been a better time to be in the business of analytics or predictive modeling—critical tools for social research.
Ironically, at precisely the time when business gets it, the rest of the society might be in danger of flubbing. Krugman writes:
“Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
Well, yes, of course. All of the important beliefs that are fixed today were fixed a generation ago. But we taught critical thinking precisely because the future was anything but fixed. So much else is new and volatile and the only way through it to the truth is with those critical thinking skills you need to learn in order to get one of those jobs mentioned at the start. I am glad I work in the tech sector, trying to figure it all out and happier still that I have so many tools at my disposal to make ferreting out information easier.
I am also worried about the next generation though. There’s no way you can maintain any kind of leadership position in the world today without a strong dose of insight driven by data gathering and critical thinking skills. In the same issue of the Times today there’s another story about Samsung and about how it’s beginning to challenge Apple.
The story references the Galaxy III phone, which I thought Apple had successfully sued over. No matter, the story contrasts the two companies concluding that the two couldn’t be more different.
First there’s this:
“We get most of our ideas from the market,” said Kim Hyun-suk, an executive vice president at Samsung, in a conversation about the future of mobile devices and television. “The market is a driver, so we don’t intend to drive the market in a certain direction,” he said.
And then this about Apple:
“That’s in stark contrast to the philosophy of Apple’s founder Steven P. Jobs, who rejected the notion of relying on market research. He memorably said that consumers don’t know what they want.
“Where Apple stakes its success on creating new markets and dominating them, as it did with the iPhone and iPad, Samsung invests heavily in studying existing markets and innovating inside them.
I think it’s all good though. Those three statements are a microcosm of the difference between following the market and leading it. Critical thinking skills enabled Apple, under Steve Jobs, to invent market categories that it dominated. But watching an established market as Samsung is doing simply enables them to build a better mousetrap.
There’s actually nothing wrong with either approach, in fact we need both. But I will always bet on the guy who is trying to invent a new market than the one playing catch-up.
Even if I am not a financial analyst, I couldn’t help marveling at this observation from the Times article:
“The two companies are the only ones turning profits in the highly competitive mobile phone industry, with Apple taking 72 percent of the earnings and Samsung the rest.
Apple can’t lead forever and at some point a rival will build a reasonably good imitation of the iPhone for pennies. But you won’t catch Apple hanging around trying to squeeze a few extra pesos from the old products. By then, Apple will have invented some other new gizmo that we didn’t know we needed but suddenly can’t live without.
Leading. Inventing categories. It’s what’s called a Blue Ocean Strategy. You need a mind set up for it and that starts with learning critical thinking skills and challenging beliefs.