The Data Doesn't Tell Us Where To Go


Today I have a job interview for the new Predictive Analytics Administrator position at Snow College. Wish me luck!

In my preparation from the interview, I was reviewing my former writings on the subject of data science and happened across this article on LinkedIn by yours truly. Sometimes I write so much that I forget what I made or where it is. After reading it again today, I thought “Huh, this is actually good! I wrote this?”

Anyhow, here you go…

The data era is here. Like any new shiny thing, with it comes with acclaimed hope and slick promises.

Truth is always less glossy than the sales brochure.

No matter how you parse or present all that data, it can’t tell you where to go. All it can ever do is point, hopefully to some things you may not have thought of yet. That is its core value, showing us blind spots and revealing ignored interconnections. This information could possibly help you get where you want to go.

Is this important?
Well, it is if you say it is.

Data can show us what happened in the past. It can’t say why anything happened though. We must overlay our values over the data to give it any value. We say what matters.

What matters is all about what we believe. This is within us, not the data about us. Data doesn’t tell us what to do, and thus it can’t relieve us of responsibility for making hard decisions. Data on its own can’t even say the word “because”. Because this requires an intelligence…such as yours.

When we tell stories using data, we’re curating it based on what we believe. We are selecting certain elements that we FEEL are relevant highlight, and glossing over other things that we FEEL don’t count.

When we use data, we are saying what matters to us.

There is plenty of activity these days around machine learning, artificial intelligence, algorithms, decision engines, etc. and I am actually very happy to see it! Let us use all the tools at our disposal to better guide our success. Let us differentiate what we said we believed from what we actually did, as manifested though our behaviors. Let us better predict some of the familiar pitfalls ahead based on the ones behind us. There is much to learn, many illusions to shatter.

As much as we let it, our data supports us on this journey. On its own, it is merely a survey of the past territory. Data can tell us many things, but it can’t tell us where we should go next.

More data to do…what again?

If you already know there are some seriously flawed actions in progress right now under your watch, and you’re confident you know what needs to happen next, then you know where to go. Don’t distract yourself with quantifying anything. Roll up your sleeves and fix it already. You’ll learn plenty of lessons while you’re doing this that teach you in ways that big data simply cannot.

If you work with people who go with their gut, people for whom no amount of evidence will change their approach, then they are saying that they already know where to go. If you want, go that way with them. You can use data to help power a path in that direction, but data is clearly the wrong tool to influence that direction. Gut-people won’t care about your data, they’ll insist they know better.

If you aren’t entirely clear on what your goal is or where you are going, if you have yet to figure out what raving success would look like in your case, then data can’t help you get there. You’re not ready to chart a path. You wouldn’t even know when to stop if you arrived! What is really important here?

First decide what matters, then choose what counts and how best to count it.
Those people who trust their gut, they could be stubborn and ignorant — or they might just be on to something.

Do you need more data to know where to go?
Well, you do if you say you do.

…After all, it’s your call to make.

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