“Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking”. Technology is immensely powerful, but severely limited. It’s not the amount of data that creates competitive advantage but how decision-makers make sense of it that counts. Genuine breakthroughs (innovation) come from a symbiosis of humans and machines.
A complex world compels organisations to rapidly discover new solutions to swerve or recover from increasingly inevitable ‘black swan’ visitations. But “historically” writes the internet expert Clay Shirky “we have overestimated the value of access to information, and we have always underestimated the value of access to each other.” The failure of the US security services, for example, to prevent the 9/11 attacks were not due to a deficiency of data collection but of humans beings sharing knowledge about what had been collected in cross-functional teams to make better sense of the data. If organisations want to become smart and resilient they must leverage natural human skills in parallel with technology. Less focus on big data; more focus on ‘big knowledge.’
Evidence from millennia of evolution testifies to the natural human ability to prosper. And we do this through social interaction, with each other, using technology as an enabler - not a decider. For example, the recent discovery of an unusual new planet with four suns was not made by the super hi-tech Kepler telescope alone, but in conjunction with two members of a web-based citizen science project accessing the astronomical amount of data NASA makes freely available to the public from it. NASA does this as it recognises the limitations of their own data-crunching computer programs which don’t know how to interpret variations that are signals that should be explored. Fortunately, this is something the human brain excels at. Engaging natural human sense-making abilities, by bringing multiple perspectives to bear on crucial challenges can create genuine breakthroughs and increase productivity at essentially zero cost.
Some organisations tap natural knowledge flows with huge commercial success - IBM is now repeating it’s hugely successful co-investment with Linux and Goldcorp discovered massive of previously hard to find gold reserves after making information freely available on the web. Real competitive advantage won’t come from investment in management fads - the learning curve is too costly. It will come from marrying multiple current capabilities together. This demands leaders reject the myth of the ‘one right answer’ and instead seek to stimulate the natural knowledge-sharing processes already occurring between humans; support them with technology they are able to use; and use their own human judgement to make sense of the insights to learn how to better act in the highly-complex world around them.