Data cannot provide insights, only people can

Read time 3min 20sec
Donald Farmer, principal at Treehive Strategy.
Donald Farmer, principal at Treehive Strategy.

We are living in a data-driven world; a world in which data, analytics and business intelligence (BI) is the Holy Grail that enables business competitiveness. Right?

Not according to Donald Farmer, principal at Treehive Strategy in Seattle, delivering the opening keynote address at ITWeb Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit 2019 in Sandton today.

In his examination of BI and where the world of analytics is headed, he said it is a fallacy to believe data is able to provide the meaningful insights businesses require in today's fast-paced, rapidly changing world. It is only people who can do that.

Farmer pointed out that most individuals today have access to better technology in their homes than in their offices, as consumer technology races ahead while IT teams are constantly constrained by budgets, security concerns and governance.

At the same time, the IT environment is becoming increasingly complex and the user environment ever-more simple. In addition, business users are more IT literate, using technology more than ever before, with sophisticated BI and data analytics tools in their pockets. They were previously used to data being presented in ways that were not only easy to understand, but also meaningful to them.

"Data is not an objective source of intelligence. We don't make decisions based purely on data. We have opinions and biases. We are all susceptible to outside influences, some of which we may not even be aware of yet, which may cause us to interpret the data presented to us in a particular way. It is dangerous to think that we are data-driven and to use data to defend ourselves rather than to inform ourselves," he warned.

Farmer pointed out that while access to data about markets or competitors used to give businesses a competitive-edge, this is no longer the case. Virtually everyone has access to the same data, often at the push of a button or a Google search.

What is important, therefore, is not the data itself but the conversations around the data.

"Data is a commodity. Data's power comes from what you do with it. Data only works when you exchange insights with others, collaborate and interrogate it. In the new economy, conversations are the most important form of work," he said.

According to Farmer, it is also wrong to believe the full impact of artificial intelligence (AI) would only be felt in the future, or to fear that future. Mining, for example, had been using autonomous vehicles long before consumer versions started to make an appearance on city streets; and robots, now finding their way into consumer-facing roles, had long been used in industry.

"AI is only capable of doing what it is told to do, what its developers intend it to do and what it is 'trained' to do. It has no intention or agency of its own," he said.

Farmer cited the famous example of the Big Blue computer that famously beat the world champion chess player at his own game, but was unable to take up the challenge of playing a novice, five-year-old checkers player. While the child had learned to play checkers in a short period of time, it would take extensive work, time and effort to 'teach' Big Blue to play checkers, let alone beat the child.

"AI can deal with complicated tasks but only humans can deal with complexities. And while AI may lead to the loss of certain jobs, it cannot and will not be able to replace the intuition and inherent analytics capabilities of people," he concluded.

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