One of the hottest tickets in the technology world at present—alongside mobility and cloud—is "big data". The term is pervasive: I hear it mentioned or see it in print almost every day. Technology types—especially software companies and information consultants—are promoting big data as if it is some sort of nirvana, where all of the hassles of processing and making sense of seemingly unscalable mountains of data that pervade businesses simply go away. Consequently, many companies seem to be rushing towards expensive big data deployments. Some are ending up very disappointed.
It's true that the results of big data analytics can reveal some interesting correlations about various things of interest. The results can be helpful to decision-making, but only if you know what questions to ask. The challenge for the board is to ensure that it is clear as to why big data is important:
Boards need to ask these questions before the not insignificant cost of deploying a system is authorised. (Actually, they are no different the questions a board should ask before any major capital decision.) Even if satisfactory answers to these important questions are forthcoming, one crucial limitation remains. A Financial Times article, published earlier this year, sums it up well:
Big data do not solve the problem that has obsessed statisticians and scientists for centuries: the problem of insight, of inferring what is going on, and figuring out how we might intervene to change a system for the better.
Big data is not a substitute for critical thinking, the careful consideration of strategic options, or smart decision-making. It is all well and good to buy a system to crunch a (very large) set of numbers. So-called big data systems can be very helpful at this task. But don't expect them to make sense of the answers that they spit out. If you do, there is a fair chance that you will end up disappointed.
My wife and I had a wonderful dinner last night, with some newfound friends at their home. The four of us have quite different backgrounds, so the evening was primed for a wide-ranging conversation. And so it came to pass: we explored a rich tapestry of business, social, political, cultural and spiritual ideas.
During the conversation, Jane asked about my research, because she wanted to understand its practical application to business owners, boards and managers. She had heard a little about governance and boards. However, some of the stories in the media and suggestions that "every one should have a board" were a bit frightening. She said she had read some of my research papers, which she found interesting but hard to read. While she understood the words, some of the concepts and their practical application were harder to fathom. Jane asked why I write as I do.
"For my audience", I said.
"OK, that's great; but if you are uncovering some interesting things, to help boards perform better, why don't you write in a way that your audience can understand?"
Jane perceived that my audience is (or should be) business owners, boards and managers, whereas my papers are actually written for, and to meet the expectations of, the research community. I have long planned to re-write my findings into a book format—after the doctoral journey is completed. However, the question set me thinking: should I write two versions of each paper: one for academic consumption and another, more accessible version, for boards and managers? Would this idea be helpful, or are the musings posted on this blog sufficient until the book appears?
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.