A buddy of mine recently sold his company and suddenly had the pleasant task of figuring out how to manage more money than he’d ever had. Wanting to assess how best to invest and plan for his future, he started interviewing financial advisors.
As he went through these meetings, though, he found himself getting increasingly frustrated. The advisors would rattle off a list of multiple data sources, the analytics they used, different financial instruments, all in an effort to impress him with their vast resources. But instead of being impressed, he felt overwhelmed with information that left him more confused rather than helping him make a decision.
He didn’t want volumes of data. He simply wanted answers.
My friend was feeling on a personal level what I think many people are experiencing in this era of Big Data. They have more sources funneling more data to them than ever before. But instead of feeling liberated and more effective, they’re feeling overwhelmed by information that doesn’t allow them to make better sense of their world.
So, I think it’s time for us to start talking about Smarter Data, instead of just Big Data. Volume doesn’t matter. Number of sources doesn’t matter. What matters is this: How do we help people use data to gain insight into themselves or their businesses? And how do we help them make better decisions using that data?
Clearly, the topic of Big Data has exploded in recent years. Everywhere you go, people in business feel the need to talk about it, and comment on it. This is understandable and most of this discussion is enthusiastic. As the mountains of data grow, people sense there is an enormous opportunity to leverage it to make a whole host of things better, from our businesses to our personal health.
I share that optimism. Big Data can be really powerful. But your average executive or knowledge worker doesn’t want to see or know how to use it all. They don’t necessarily care where it comes from or how it gets here. What they really want is help making critical decisions. They want to be smarter. They want insight.
Because it’s easy to understand, one of my favorite examples of something that does this effectively is Google Maps. The Google Maps API is really a massive number of data points. If Google served it up as a gigantic spreadsheet of longitudes and latitudes, it would be useless to most of us. But by putting it in a shareable and searchable map, it helps me answer lots of questions like: What is the fastest route between two points? And what stores are nearby?
To achieve our goals of getting to that point of insight, conversations shouldn’t start with lists of the data available. Instead, they should start with a simple question: “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”
From there, you want to figure out what an answer might look like: “In an ideal world, what information and in what form would you get it that would allow you to solve that problem?”
Now work backward. This takes a bit of courage, because quite often, even if you’re trying to sell a solution, internally or externally, you wind up confronting the reality that you don’t offer all the pieces that will generate the answers the client wants. A part of me loves these types of conversations, even if they can be painful at first, because it means we’ve uncovered something important. And if we can figure it out, the solution will probably help a lot of other people as well.
This needs to happen with more regularity now. If we’re truly going to deliver on the promise of an age where more information is being collected from more points, then we have to focus on how we provide insight and answers. That’s not Big Data. That’s Smarter Data and Big Insights.