Data for Good – Looking for Innovation in All the Wrong Places

March 27, 2014

You could say that innovating using Big Data requires looking for love in all the wrong places—and when you find that something to love, persevering through thick and thin to make it take hold for everyone’s mutual benefit.


Alfred Sommer is an eye doctor who, in his relentless review of research datasets, came across critical information that led him to forge a low-cost, highly efficacious, life-saving innovation in healthcare.Sommer’s simple medical intervention has likely saved millions of children from premature death. Of data, he says:


“You have to know your data, you have to smell it, you have to be in it. If you're not living inside the data you are going to miss the most interesting things, because the most interesting things are not going to be the questions you originally proposed; the interesting things are going to be questions you hadn't thought about."


Sommer’s data-driven discovery proved that vitamin A deficiency not only resulted in juvenile nightblindness but also in death. Furthermore, he proved that a two-cent oral application of vitamin A could address the issue and prevent many deaths. Sommer’s discovery and innovation came in 1982, well before technology-enabled “Big Data.” He used a hand-held calculator to painstakingly pour through multiple levels of medical data to arrive at a surprising insight with huge implications. Discovering thatdeath could result from simple vitamin A deficiency was seen as a phenomenal breakthrough, particularlycoming from an eye doctor. Frankly, he was from an unlikely place within the medical field for his discovery to be readily accepted.


Nobody was willing to accept that two cents worth of vitamin A was going to reduce childhood mortality by a third or half, let alone when that information was coming from an ophthalmologist,” said Sommer. A lot of people had spent their lives studying the complex amalgam of elements leading to childhood deaths…It didn't sit well. What was most frustrating of all was when you present the hard data and people just say they don't believe it.”


Sommer overcame the issue of disbelief and lack of acceptance by burying critics in data; he established further studies all over the world to prove his finding was accurate. The World Bank and Copenhagen Consensus have since listed Sommer’s vitamin A supplementation as one of the most cost-effective health interventions in the world.


This case study illustrates that meaningful innovation often requires looking deeply into things outside the norm or in places that nobody else has examined. It shows the value that can come from focusing on what might at first appear to be impossible, or even prone to being discredited—but then having the fortitude to look anyway, the perseverance to keep delving into the issue and reaching for the solution.Indeed, successful innovation starts with the relentless pursuit of insights, using disparate data sources from across a range of gathering venues and perspectives. It also requires examining data for best practices across people, processes, technology, business models, funding—and, ideally, in the pursuit of purpose as well. Sommer’s work showed the world-changing good that can come from data-driven innovation.


Unlike when Sommer conducted his groundbreaking work, the advanced data analytics of today make combing through print outs with calculators obsolete. (Phew.) But given our increasingly complex, fast-paced world in which there’s so much product and service displacement and still so many unmet needs,the same relentless pursuit of data is recognized as even more critical to innovationand to a company’s survival—than ever before.


Data analytics is seen more and more as the one strategy that can help companies succeed. GE’s 2013 Global Innovation Barometer affirmed that 63% of senior executives involved in innovation report their firm is developing the ability to use the potential of ‘Big Data’ for Innovation.


Affirming this, CIOs attending the 2014 Wall Street Journal CIO Network Conference also indicated theirtop focus will be on Business Intelligence and Analytics and on building a data-driven culturewith data that is easily accessible and consumable.  


In his foundational 2007 innovation discourse, “Sensing, Seizing and Transforming,” David J. Teece at the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of Management, Innovation and Organization, noted with concern that multiple corporations “became prisoners of the deeply ingrained assumptions, information filters, and problem solving strategies that made up their world views, turning the solutions that once made them great into strategic straitjackets.”  


Teece said that identifying and seizing opportunities means businesses must delve into the rich data coming from local and distant markets and through myriad technologies. He wrote:


This activity not only involves investment in research activity and the probing and re-probing of customer needs and technological possibilities; it also involves understanding latent demand, the structural evolution of industries and markets, and likely supplier and competitor responsesThe systematic nature of many innovations compounds the need for external search.”


Teece and other experts concur that innovation success entails scanning customer demographic, usage and purchase data; unearthing market perceptions; exploring entire ecosystems; discerning unmet needs through ethnographic and qualitative or quantitative research; conducting assessments of alternative ways for customers to meet needs; considering convergent industry developments, technology developments, regulatory policies; and much more.


Importantly, successful innovators need to examine and harness data across and in support of multiple dimensions of innovation—well beyond product innovation itself—that can span product and service offerings, business models, delivery channel solutions, customer engagement provisions, strategic partnerships and sourcing, and financial mechanisms.  


Examples of this holistic scanning and multi-dimentional innovation approach can be found in the work Deloitte Consulting, LLC is doing with clients, including biopharma companies. Deloitte provides innovation landscape research and analytics that incorporates a broad examination of emerging business models and processes, converging technologies and trendsand collaboration with an array of entities. Deloitte’s proprietary discipline for arriving at innovation breakthroughs,10 Types of Innovation,” has been proven to lift innovation success many fold. One such holistic innovation is their work with Pfizer and Keas, developing online healthcare plans that guide patients to adopt healthier lifestyles. This innovation incorporated perspectives across the entire “system of care” and social institutions, such as friends and families, churches, social clubs, and workplaces.


This dedicated, expansive search through massive amounts of data can produce and efficaciously deliver something distinctly valuable that affords a sustainable advantage. But technology and data scanning alone won’t do it. There’s much more in the data to be discovered than meets the eye. Going beyond what’s readily apparent and digging deeper and sifting for gold nuggets is the key. Fortunately, today’s businesses have more resources available for insightful data gathering and innovation optimization than ever before, a topic described in depth in the next installment of the Data for Good series.