The Dark Side of Data

Have you given in to the dark side of data? And what is the dark side of data? Let’s start at the beginning.

The first wave in the information age was information access. The next wave was information discernment (Which link of my 50,000+ search results should I click?) And to quote Doctor Strange, we’re in the end game now.

Make no mistake, data does have a dark side. It’s called data reliance.

Am I being too dramatic? In the information age, there’s one professional skill that matters more than any other: decision making.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data. We all agree that technology in general is fantastic. Having data at your fingertips when you need to make a complex or ambiguous decision is powerful. Still, data can mislead us down the wrong path.

When we rely too heavily on data to make decisions, what happens when the power goes out? It’s like flipping a light switch, only to find out the light doesn’t turn on. Are we prepared or paralyzed?

When we rely too heavily on data to make decisions, we atrophy the number one professional skill we need to succeed and grow in the knowledge economy: decision making.

Data-driven is good

As leaders, as professionals, becoming data driven is in vogue. And rightfully so.

Data helps more leaders get the answer right more often. For example:

●      What’s our average lead time to manufacture cell phones in China?
●      What’s the median age of our customers on the West Coast?
●      Which of our marketing video gets the most views?
●      What percentage change do we see in our cost per mile during rush hour in Atlanta?
●      What …you get the point.

The push to become data-driven is everywhere. But we need awareness that our data-reliance might be dimming the number one skill we need to succeed in our job and in our career: decision making.

Two totally different roles

I’m often amazed how two people in the same role, with similar experience and similar training, can produce completely different results. For instance, your head of marketing leaves your company. Their replacement sets completely different priorities and takes responsibility for different problems. Why is that? That’s the power of decision making at work.

“Effectiveness means doing the right things well,” said Peter Drucker, the man who invented management.

What are the right things? Data should inform your decision, not make it for you. I’m not saying this from a big brother, conspiracy theory point of view. Decision fatigue is a real thing. As busy professionals, we make thousands of quick-twitch decisions a day — it’s exhausting. You and I both feel it. It’s much easier to sit on the couch and let Netflix tell us what to watch and have Amazon suggest to us what to buy.

Here is a look at my own dark side … does it sound  familiar?

I recently bought a unicorn music box for my three-year-old daughter because it had more five-star reviews than another, almost identical unicorn music box. The decision took me 10 seconds with zero critical thinking. And guess what? She loves it. She’s been carrying it around everywhere for a week. I performed none of my own analysis or research and happily took one step down the path towards the data-reliance dark side. What am I going to do the next time I need to make a decision between two seemingly decent options that don’t have star ratings?

Data-driven is good. Data-reliant is bad

Several years ago, I worked with one of the smartest leaders I’ve encountered in my career. Blue-chip consulting background. Ivy-League MBA. But he wouldn’t make a decision without more data. “We need more data,” I can still hear him saying.

But we didn’t have more data. We had what we had. Our systems had limitations. Our processes weren’t scalable. Our organization wasn’t agile. But he couldn’t, wouldn’t make the decisions we needed to move the team forward. And the business suffered.

I’m not advocating for shooting from the hip, winging it, or making it up as you go. But the reality is that we’ll never have all the data we need to make effective decisions in the complexity of business today. And worse, when we rely on technology to all but make the decision for us, we dim the number one skill we need to succeed and grow: decision making.

So, am I being too dramatic? You decide.

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Brian Quinn
Brian Quinn is VP, Managed Services at Access Information Management.
Brian Quinn

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