Saturday, 31st July 2021

The Lord of the Data: A cautionary tale

One dataset to rule them all, one team to find them. One tool to bring them all and the database bind them…. By Gordon Cullum, Chief Technology Officer at Mastek.

I’ve decided I’d try something a bit tongue-in-cheek. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in the message I’m giving. Rather, that I believe in the power of story-telling to get a point across and since I’m not that creative, well, I thought I’d borrow from some of the greatest stories. If you’re not a fan of the science fiction and fantasy genres then perhaps some of the references may pass you by, but I hope my point still comes through.

My premise is that in the Law of Unintended Consequences one of the five primary causes that Robert K Merton provided is “errors in analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation”. Measuring something that we’ve always measured, or that we suppose and have had historic suggested evidence to support a goal or outcome is something that we fall into the trap of when looking to exploit corporate data to drive business action. For example, we measure Gross Margin (in some particular way) because we always have and we know that when it goes up or down then the share price reacts in some way. It must therefore follow that we will always measure that because there will always be value in continuing to measure it and act on it. Simples.

In the classic tale by Tolkien, Deagol and Smeagol are two cousins who loved each other dearly – they both significant value in their relationship with each other. One day while playing, Deagol finds the One True Ring at the bottom of a river and shows it to Smeagol. Smeagol wants the shiny trinket (it’s valuable to him) and murders his cousin for it. He exchanges the perceived value of the shiny ring for the real value of his cousin’s friendship. In that moment there is remorse (a bit like buyer’s remorse, I would suggest) but he soon discovers another value of the ring – its ability to make him invisible. This value is the value he unquestioningly ascribes to the ring, arguably until his death. It never occurs to him to ask different questions, understand the world around him, how it came to be, its history, try different things with the ring. That is, he never really understood it in its context. If he had, he’d have not met his end the way he had.

We know the value of the measures we use for our businesses and strive to build new, shinier business and IT systems to capture these measures more efficiently – that is, faster, more accurately and so on. How often do we actually say – are we measuring, and therefore ascribing value to the right thing? How often are we actually questioning our questions?

So, we do it measure it and value it because we’ve always measured it and valued it. If we know question the question (“Is it valid to ask what our GM is?”), and we come to the conclusion that there is a better way of measuring the true value of our business, that doesn’t mean that it was wrong to measure it when we first started to do so. Even if we determine that it was, remember another great story quote: Who is the greater fool? The fool, or the fool who follows him?

Once we’ve got all our information in usable, accurately stored form not only do we have the appropriate tools to answer our existing questions more efficiently, but we also have the right tools to ask ourselves what questions we should be asking. We can seek out new questions and new opportunities. To boldly go where no data team has gone before. Yes, I used the split infinitive.

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