Unless we’re willing to entirely hand over decision-making to machines we still need humans to make sense of the answers they suggest to us. This is just as well. For though humans, unlike computers, are very bad at calculating large sets of data; computers (unlike us) are very bad at providing sensible answers to complex questions. Making smart decisions in a complex world therefore requires employing tools to support the human, rather than employing humans to fit the tools we have built our organisations around.
Big data may have an important role to play in our highly-connected world. But big data excels in providing answers to a very narrow range of issues: inventory replenishment, automated underwriting, dynamic online offers and other ordered processes. Yet these are not the issues keeping executives awake at night. What disturbs their sleep is uncertainty: what will customers want tomorrow, what will rivals do next, and what will key staff members expect in future? Big data - of which we already have plenty (we currently produce more data every 10 minutes than we did in the 5,000 years prior to 2003) - is less a need than big knowledge: how to make sense of the data we already have to generate breakthroughs to the organisations most pressing problems.
The complexity expert, Dave Snowden, argues that ‘technology should therefore seek to support, not undermine human capabilities.’ We less want computers to make the big decisions for us and more need them to augment our natural decision-making abilities. Millennia of evolution suggests we humans are actually pretty good at surviving and thriving in a complex world. And our ability to manipulate tools to make this task easier is unrivalled in the natural world. What we mustn't do now is abdicate from our central role in decision-making in favour of a tool we've created. Humans must be firmly placed at the beginning and the end of any technology for it to have utility.
Therefore, before going down the path of more automation, more data (and more power to your CIO) consider for a moment why might big data not be the answer for you or your organisation: