The formidable Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy (who declares that has ‘an attractively vague job title which has allowed him to co-found a behavioural science practice within the agency) says that ‘all Big Data comes from the same place, the past’.
He says it in his usual cheeky way to make the obvious point of the partiality of the single ‘solution’ to problems: the Mother of All Servers. For me, sitting in the applied behavioural and social sciences sphere, this is music to my ears.
Interestingly, I am a bit schizophrenic about it. I am trained as a medical doctor and as a psychiatrist (before my long venture in the corporate world as R&D and commercial leader, and my current 20 years of organizational consulting). As a medical doctor, in the case of reading an X-ray or a MRI, I would choose Big Data million times over the eyes of the technician and the specialist. Systems that are able to compare a scan with thousand of others in a data base, with the salt and pepper of a bit of artificial intelligence, are incredibly precise. This is not normal practice yet, but it will become.
As a psychiatrist ( and behavioural -social sciences professional), Big Data blinds me from seeing, hearing, smelling and capturing a reality. In fact, I need Small Data. Lots of it. My organizational consulting practice could not survive without it. Very often my team is asked to help an organization that has produced already thick volumes of surveys, and all of them are on the table. They are useful as pointers but never a substitute for the ‘anthropological work’ of hearing, seeing and smelling ‘the place’.
At the purely business strategy level, the days of Benchmarking and Best Practices are gone (unless you have been, or are, on a Sabbatical in Mars). The life cycle of Best Practice is today probably one minute. I said many years ago (many) that benchmarking is a race against somebody who has already won. But we all kept racing.
Important as Big Data is, it has the risk of creating complacency and lack of serious thinking to shape a future. (Unless you want to rule out that the little dot in the brain is a tumour).
Small Data sees the unusual, the anecdote, the unsaid, the unpredictable, the flags and warnings, the real organization.
Our education system produces analytical minds that can dissect an elephant and become proficient at the physiology of tusks. We need people who can first shout ‘hey, guys, it’s an elephant!’, and who can see one when there is one.