Concluding Thoughts: The Essential Data Ingredient—Us

This is the concluding article in the report, "The Future of Data-Driven Innovation" 

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By Rich Cooper

Few issues have generated as much concern and confusion as the rise of Big Data, but given the impact on every industry, community, and person, should we expect anything less? Data is simply all of the information around us and about us. Yet, for all the reasons described in this report, it can be hard for individuals, policy makers, and other public and private sector stakeholders to fully comprehend and appreciate the data movement.

As a result of this incomplete knowledge and awareness, there is sometimes a fear of data, a concern that information produced by the Internet of Things and all the technologies we use is reducing human beings to sets of 1s and 0s. As the age-old sentiment says, people fear what they do not understand. For many people, this fear boils down to a simple question: could the rise of data come to replace human intelligence?

In short, no. As the research and scholars in this report show, data does not work that way. Data contributes to informed decision making, but it is only a part of the equation. As history has proven time and again, being a good leader is about making good choices. In every setting, leaders must use a mix of reliable information and experience to decide the best course of action. The growing saturation of data-generating technologies contributes to an ocean of information that, when analyzed, can reveal new connections, trends, and opportunities. Yet, in the end, it will always be a person with a heartbeat (not an algorithm) that makes a final decision.

A recent report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, “Decisive Action: How Businesses Make Decisions and How They Could do it Better,” investigated how intuition fits into business executives’ decision-making processes.[i] In a survey of company leaders, the study found that 42% of respondents characterized their decision-making style as data driven, while 17% noted a primarily empirical decision-making process. Just 10% reported a largely intuitive decision-making style.

Yet, when asked what they would do if data contradicted a “gut feeling,” nearly 60% of business leaders said they would reanalyze the data; 30% said they would collect more data; and, a meager 10% would ignore that little voice inside and do what the data says.

What this tells us is that even as data-driven decision making is an important and growing force, it does not trump good, old-fashioned human intuition. Nor should it. For all of the powerful, valuable insights data can offer, it can never replace a conversation between parties, an experience-based deduction, or any of the un-replicable cognitive qualities unique to human beings. 

Data veracity is a challenge for analysts. This refers to data accuracy as well as source reliability, the context out of which the data comes, the methods for sorting and storing information, and a range of factors that can influence the data’s validity. Remedying this is already a large, time-consuming effort. The Harvard Business Review reports that workers can spend up to 50% of their time looking for data, fixing errors, and trying to validate the numbers they have on hand.[ii]

While this shows the ongoing challenge of acquiring high-quality data, it also underscores another way in which the human element remains critical. Collecting data and preparing it for analysis still demands a human intelligence. It is also that intuitive hunch, that gut feeling that can push a business leader to pause before acting on data analysis that just doesn’t add up. Without human knowledge and wisdom, we might end up chasing Big Data red herrings. Instead, data informs our thoughts, actions, and discussions and elevates them to a higher level. The data and the decision-maker must work together to produce groundbreaking innovations and business insights.

Realizing the most value from data is a careful balancing act, with multiple competing priorities. If our broadband infrastructure is underdeveloped, it can hinder data flows and computing capacity. If our education system does not produce a workforce with sufficient STEM skills, we will lack the data scientists and analysts critical to the data revolution. And if the ethics of storing, using, and sharing data are not clearly defined and upheld, it could hurt public trust. These and other priorities must receive appropriate attention and commitment, or we will not enjoy the jobs, innovations, efficiencies, and better quality of life that data can yield.

The challenges faced are significant, but so is the potential. The data movement is unlike anything we have seen before. It connects all people, activities, and the goods and services we create. It transcends national borders and arbitrary barriers between people, cultures, and ideas. This new world, shaped by data, gives us a rare opportunity to explore and discover.

An historic parallel are the adventures of the first nautical explorers. As these early, ultimate risk-takers looked out from the shoreline, preparing to shove off into open waters, they had their sails at the ready to go somewhere, but where they would land and the direction they would take was often unknown. To be sure, the forces of nature certainly impacted those journeys, but it was human hands, firmly grasping the rudders of available technologies and innovations, that steered these pioneers to new shores of opportunity.

Today, we find ourselves on the verge of a similarly epic journey, its end point ever-uncertain. The direction we take will be decided by the forces of nature and commerce, as well as the debates and discussions we have about what the data-driven future should look like. The rudder by which we steer is held with imperfect hands, where error and discovery are just a few degrees apart. Yet, this is a journey we must take if we are to keep moving forward.

The winds of innovation are blowing, our sails are raised, and there is an ocean of data and possibility before us. At the outset of any adventure, a measure of anxiety can be healthy and helpful, but this ship of opportunity is of our making and fully within our control. If there is one lesson we can take with us on this voyage, it is this: the power of data is not what it can do but what we can do with it.

Rich Cooper is vice president for emerging issues and research for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation where he is responsible for the exploration of issues that will impact the private sector over the next three to five years. He directs a team of scholars, researchers, and managers who present programming, publications, and events to better inform and best prepare business leaders for the future. He is a senior fellow with The George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, the past chairman of the Homeland Security Division of the National Defense Industrial Association, and has previously held senior positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and in the private sector.

[i] "Decisive Action: How Businesses Make Decisions and How They Could Do it Better," The Economist Intelligence Unit, June 2014.

[ii] Thomas C. Redman, "Data's Credibility Problem," Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2013.


Vice President of Research and Emerging Issues