Bad Data or Fools Gold?

In 2019 the world wide web celebrated its 30th birthday. For 30 years the web has connected the world, shared information and changed economies and cultures. Where were you in 1989? What were you doing? The things you are doing today such as surfing the net on your phone, booking a hotel via Airbnb, or getting an Uber from the airport, are not the things you were doing then. Technology has changed our world. It continues to leap forward in ways that most of us cannot foresee. If the internet is the highway that connects computers around the world and the world wide web is our on-ramp, then we (our clicking actions) are the cars driving on it at the speed of information.

Welcome to the Digital Age, also known as the Data Age or the Information Age. Many innovations brought us to this world we know today like the vacuum tube, the transistor, the silicon wafer, programming languages, algorithms and plasma displays among many other things. This new age shifted away from the Industrial Age – a time last century when manufacturing drove the economy and culture. While manufacturing has declined, it has not disappeared. In fact, companies that manufacture hardware and soft- ware are thriving in the Information Age. The shift is certainly economic, but the average person does not feel it like an economist studying macro- trends. The shift is felt culturally in the way we work and socialize and recreate.

Knowledge itself has value, but it has its limits. Experts hoard knowledge and have mastered a domain of content and skills. In many ways, knowledge is less valuable now because of Google, which can provide facts on almost any topic. Skills, wisdom and insight on the other hand are still valuable. The value of knowledge is transient and may be replaced by someone or something that facilitates connections. Mavens are valuable because they have deep knowledge of a domain. Connectors are valuable, not because they know the domain, but because they know many people who know many domains. 3 Research from Gartner has found that the most effective managers are not the ones who micro-manage; they are not mavens. They are the ones who connect their direct reports to others who can help them do their jobs.

Time eventually highlighted that very few companies actually played in the big data space. The real players included Walmart and its massive volumes of daily global in-store transactions; telecom companies that host calls and internet traffic; Amazon’s online transactions; Netflix, Hulu, Apple Music and other streaming services that transfer content across the internet; Google responding to millions of enquiries per second; Facebook and LinkedIn sharing information across personal and professional networks; hosting a platform for tracking and reporting sales leads from tens of thou- sands of companies and untold users around the world. The big data focus brought attention to the need for analytics in general, which eventually rolled to HR analytics and learning analytics.

Quality is essential for mining the data for insights. If the inputs are wrong, if information is incomplete or if the sources are spurious, the a­nalysis conducted and the conclusions drawn could be wildly off-base or simply wrong. In such cases, big data is bad data and is no more valuable than fool’s gold.

Because business leaders understand that value is locked inside their data, they are pushing their business units to analyse what is available and provide insights. Marketing has changed substantially in the past decade. Marketers not so long ago would say tongue-in-cheek: ‘We know that 50 per cent of advertising works. We just don’t know which 50 per cent.’ Today, because of their ability to post content, track views, clicks, time on page, bounce rates and desired outcomes (eg online purchases), they are much better equipped to say: ‘We know which 5 per cent works, and we going to reinvest to drive more sales with our advertising dollars. Expect an uplift of 2–4 per cent this quarter.’