This idea must die?

by Tania Armstrong

We are renovating at home.

This consists of endless walls that now need primer and two coats of paint. It also means I have time on my hands to think and listen to podcasts. Freakanomics is one of the staple favourites and I've been catching up on the backlog while liberally slapping half-Dutch white everywhere. My interest piqued on their episode 'This idea must die'. The premise was take a bunch of modern thinkers from different schools of thought and ask them which idea should be retired due to either outliving its usefulness or through the development of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Emanual Derman (Director of MS program in Financial Engineering at Colombia University) in his Freakanomic’s soliloquy introduced the idea that the use and power of statistics maybe currently fashionable but looking at the data is not enough to tell you 'truths about the world'. His thought was that through advancements in computers, computer science, information technology, economics, big-data there is a nexus of thought which suggests that distilling data into information should provide insights. The inference is that the former produces the latter. Drawing on his work as a quantative statistician and theoretical particle physicist, and studying the works Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Kepler’s interpretation of the Danish observational astronomer, Tycho Brahe’s(1546-1601) body of work, he uses the following as an example to recommend retiring this idea that information means insight.

Kepler spent a massive amount of time reviewing the data Brahe’s collected. From this data he worked out how the planets of our solar system move in relation to sun understanding that the earth’s movement (being the point of observation) needed to be stripped from the data. He distilled his thoughts on this into his second law – which talks of there being an ‘invisible line’ between the sun and the planets to explain how they move in relation to each other. But this stroke of genius and understanding was not derived or seen in the data. Derman opines that this great break-through, like many others, came through a bust of intuition and not the detail analysis of the original data.

Anyway, it got me thinking – well between slopping paint over myself and fending of paint-curious Labradors and bored kids - about my current understanding of what we do in business intelligence. The premise of what we do is to extract value from a company’s data so that they can glean insights to inform timely business decisions. So… I pondered while my forearm cramped with the exertions of painting the ceiling, does relying on business intelligence reduce a person / company’s ability to be inspired and to intuitively drive businesses forward without constrains?

The answer would have to be a no.

Firstly, I certainly see the point Derman is making. It is possible that when businesses only look at their business in the constrained view of their industry, sector, and market place they can miss the bigger picture. Being unshackled from ‘what is’ allows the option to play with new approaches, new processes, and new theories and to experiment outside the realms of their reality. Could there be another market if our current market didn’t exist? Could the widget / underpinning IP we currently have be utilised in an unrelated industry? The possibilities are endless when you have nothing to stop you dreaming big.

But many of DataMetrics’ clients want to see a view of the past and use it to look to the future. BI just has so much to offer when it comes to asking questions and running dynamic variation models to answer such questions. As opposed to constraining creativity and intuition BI gives businesses the power to run worst case scenarios or best case predictions. It provides the option of not only saving time (Kepler was obviously a maths whiz genius, but we have computers to crunch the big numbers now) but trialling and failing without burning through resources. It’s also fun to play and to factor in what in real-life might be absurd. And I don’t just mean using your own data to do it. There is a wealth of open-data resources available from government and NGO’s that can add multiple dimensions to your business models. Time and resource poor businesses can harness BI as an enabler to run free, take thinking off-road and ask the crazy questions which might lead to something truly innovative.

Ok, back to the painting!