Lost in the Data

Recently I have come across two publications that suggest our fascination with managing by the numbers may be out getting out of control. One is an essay in LinkedIn Pulse by Panera CEO Ron Shaich bluntly titled “Stop Managing from the Spreadsheet” and the other an advertisement by Carahsoft Technology for a webinar on “Breaking the Storage-Focused Mindset with Information Governance.” Apparently data hoarding is becoming such a serious disease that “information governance”  will be needed to cure or at least control it.  The theme of both pieces is that it is now so easy to gather and store data that the data itself can be overwhelming, not only for an organization’s  data systems but for its decision makers as well.

Yes, we need to use an adequate amount of data to inform decision-making.  Otherwise, we end up making ill-informed decisions that do not produce the results we intend.  Hiring on the basis of a strong interview minus a careful look at past performance is often the wide road to regret, as I have learned.  And there is no doubt that research into masses of data can produce powerful results, as we see in modern physics, where previously unkown building blocks of our universe are now being discovered through analysis of massive amounts of data by extremely powerful computers,  and in modern medicine, where  a careful look at statistics pointed to the connection between smoking and serious illness.  Without the data our modern world, usually for the better and sometimes for the worse,  would be impossible.

Yet while analysis of this data is often necessary for making good decisons, when it comes to charting a way forward the data will not tell us what to do.  At that point our values, our sense of what is possible, and even our reading of how much energy we believe we can bring to  the issue all affect the decisions we make. Every decision also contains a level of uncertainty; every decision is to some extent a leap of faith, even if the leap is little more than the belief the sun will rise tomorrow.  Making other-than-routine decisions is a little scary, sometimes more than a little. Not surprisingly, there are managers and so-called “decision-makers” that are so lost in the data that they miss the big picture, miss the best time to be making key decisions, and miss unexpected opportunities.  They think they are hard at work tilling the soil, but the harvest never comes.


Lost in the Data

A Fable: A Labor of Moles

(A very dark hollow space with tunnels running into it. The hollow space and the tunnels are deep enough in the ground that moles can survive the winter cold. Moles are usually solitary creatures, but unknown to science these particular moles meet once a year to take stock of their current situation, hear from their leaders, and peer into their always dim future.)

Leader: (There is the sound of scurrying and rustling.) Silence!  (The cavern turns quiet) I know you don’t want to be here and that you especially don’t like whoever gets us together (there is a rustling sound from the audience), but this year particularly I have news we need to hear from our Council of Oracles, the Supreme Diggers. (A fight breaks out between two of the male moles. There is loud, very high pitched screeching.) Dammit, every year this happens!  Guards, separate those two and toss them out!  (The guards do as they are told.)

As I was trying to say, we have word from the chief of the Supreme Diggers, the lowest of the lows, the bottom of the bottoms, who has a report concerning that disgusting place, the Overworld.  He and the Council have been digging around, willing to get their claws dirty, and they have disturbing news.

The Chief Oracle:  Thank you, Leader, who next to Low Mole Himself is the basest of the base, the nethermost of the nether. As you know, our job is to dig, down and around to the North, South, East, and West, covering the half sphere where civilized life occurs, checking the dirt for clues about our present status and about future threats or possibilities.  From the softness of dirt we predicted the great collapse in the Year of Mole 374,919 and we warned of threats from migrating moles when the soil here was very dry. Those migrations led to World Mole War 818 and our eventual triumph.  We are not perfect–we missed the flood of 395,414–but our record is pretty good. We know that where there’s dirt, there’s data, and data is dirt that pays. We love to create piles of dirt, and we love to probe those piles: that is our mission and we accomplish it with pride.

As you know, we don’t look up when we do our work.  We have a motto: looking up is a sign of weakness. When we see a fellow mole looking up we bat him with our paws and give him a nip in the ass.  We track the number of times one of our members looks up and after several warnings a member will be expelled and sent to work on distant tunnels in a really cold climate where the moles speak an incomprehensible language.  Years of observation and our latest theory conclude that looking up is a waste of time.  Yes there is sometimes a hazy light up there, but light is not our friend.  We see it but dimly. We cannot taste it, smell it, touch it, hear it, dig it, or eat it.  It is too hazy to be measured.  It is no use to us.  There are creatures that live there and some come our way for us to eat, but we concluded long ago they are all barbaric and uncivilized.  We also concluded that nothing meaningful can be said of the light except that it appears to be there. Where it came from and what it consists of are not useful tunnels to dig.  Maybe it is an inferior form of dirt.  Maybe it is an illusion created by our nervous system when we are under stress, which we usually are when we look up or (Low Mole forbid!) even go up.  We are trained not to speculate.  Even the word “speculate” is a foreign word.  We prefer our own “forage” or “burrow.”

Now it turns out one of our own—it pains me to say this—one of our own has claimed that not only is the light real, but that there may be other lights beyond that light and that the Up may just keep going up, unlike the Down, which we have proved does have a bottom, the ground of all ground, the base of all being, where the dirt stops and the stone stops our digging.  This traitor—he is no longer with us—has even suggested we need to start looking up and maybe even organize an expedition to explore the Up.  Can you imagine?  (The sound of rustling fills the cavern.) We know by definition the Up cannot be explored and even if it could be, it is not safe.  Dirt is safe and knowable; undirt is not.  So what have we done?  We have turned to our Leader for an answer and he has, as he always does, dug into this matter, clawed away at it, and come to a conclusion.

Leader:  Thank you. Henceforth all tunnels leading Up are to be strictly patrolled.  Only those with permits issued by me are to be allowed in them and then only for the purpose of finding food, particularly food for me and the Council.  We are all too old and wise to hunt for food ourselves. The word “light”will be stricken from our vocabulary and be replaced for the few occasions when it’s needed by “undark.” Anyone who wishes to explore the UP can do so, but they will not be allowed to return to us, to their home soil, to the warmth and comfort of real dirt. I know years ago we used to discuss these matters and vote, but as you know the Council has done study after study conclusively demonstrating that groveling is far more effective and certainly far more efficient than other ways of making decisions.  So now please spontaneously grovel your assent to my decision.

(At this the moles get on their bellies and wiggle forward. Their lowering themselves to their bellies is hard to discern since they are so low to the ground anyway.  When they get to the leader they stand on all four legs and a few use their paws to lift the Leader on the top of the crowd. With a general rustling and an occasional unbearable high-pitched screech, they carry him around the meeting space.)


A Fable: A Labor of Moles

Autonomy and (yuck!) Responsibility

When I was in high school I was (probably by mistake) placed in an honors class in social studies/history. The teacher had all of us write a short paper on what freedom meant to us. The next class, instead of our getting our papers back with the glowing comments and high grades we were accustomed to, the teacher dramatically dumped all the papers in the waste paper basket conveniently located right next to his desk.  As he surveyed our shocked and dismayed faces, he commented: “What you all wrote about freedom was fine as far as it went, but not one of you said anything about the other side of the coin that inevitably goes with freedom: responsibility.”  Today that teacher would probably be sued by angry parents for traumatizing and doing irreparable damage to the self-esteem of their children, but by now he is probably beyond the reach even of litigious parents.  The teacher, of course, had a point.

The same point is true for professional autonomy, which can only be justified if the person who has the autonomy uses it for responsible ends. No doctor or lawyer , for example, can justify her use of professional discretion unless that discretion is used in a responsible way, just as our right to freedom. like most of our “rights,” is never absolute or unqualified. Any of us over the on-rush of hormone-charged adolescent rebellion knows this intellectually. Whether we understand it emotionally is another matter, let alone accept it.  As Americans we want to see ourselves as the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I suspect too many of us think that also being the land of the responsible is just a drag.

Paradoxically, one disadvantage of  micomanagement is that while it may seem to increase responsibiility in employees by ensuring they are “responsible,” the reality is that these employees are being infantilized, made unwilling to make or simply incapable of making any decision even slightly beyond the ordinary.  This infantilization can ocur in both professional and non-professional jobs. I have seen it in offices with micromanaging bosses, and we all see it too freqently at the supermarket whenever the price on an item is not exactly correct and everything has to freeze in place while a supervisor is hunted down.  The same is true with most phone support operations, where  the person you talk to has to refer any answer beyond the near-obvious to a supervisor, adding to your time on the phone,  your frustration, and your blood pressure.

Ultimately granting people autonomy may not only be generally a more effective way to run an orgaization but a more efficient one as well.  Many would reject giving more autonomy to frontline employees who are perhaps not highly motivated and almost certainly not highly paid, but some brave supermarket chain should give it a try for week and see what happens.  And think how pleasant it is when you have a fairly compicated question for a frontline telephone support staff member and that person can actually fully address the problem without consulting one or more supervisors. The odds of that happening may be as rare as your getting an additional refund from the IRS because it made a mistake, but the joy is comparable.



Autonomy and (yuck!) Responsibility