Data vs. reality

There’s a mythology that persists around data, and its ability to act as a salve to heal all organizational woes.

“If only we could do more with our data!”

“If only we could apply it to XYZ problem!”

“If only, if only …”

It’s a treasure hunt, the real gold always just around the corner.

C.S. Lewis has said technology is like magic: they both attempt to subdue reality to our wishes, instead of conforming the soul to reality. The latter requires introspection and criticism, while the former promises progress through reason and analysis.

I ran one of the biggest digital programs in the world. We had, literally, millions of data points, and a large team dedicated to cleaning, maintaining, re-organizing, and integrating them to the best of our abilities. We were constantly running the types of regression analyses that are supposed to shine a light on meaningful new data relationships, help us figure out better ways to segment. Most of them didn’t work.

Two things worked, consistently:

  • Knowing someone’s history. What they did yesterday was what they were likely to do tomorrow.

  • Focusing on good creative—especially making a persuasive argument with good writing.

Data can be useful if it provides insight, but it’s easy to focus on the shiny objects instead of doing the hard work of getting the basics right.