Our obsession with data – Symptom or Trap?

It’s hard to pinpoint when the word ‘data’ slipped into everyone’s conversation. Was it around the time we became aware that search engines were using data to understand user behavior? When data became their currency for pricing ads?

Data gathering amounted to accountability. data bestowed scientific accuracy. In some of the industries I used to be in, we had sexier terms: Metrics, and Analytics. (Combine the words to give it an aura of science –call it Data Metrics!) If you want to get more geeky, we also called some data ‘KPIs‘ – Key Performance Indicators. Today, hardly a week goes by when you don’t hear of Source Data, Meta Data..and the mother of all data we know as ‘Big Data’.  And  this spilled over to all other sectors. So it’s no wonder we hear phrases such as:

  • “So where’s the data?” ( “Where’s the evidence”)
  • “This is good data for us.” (Which used to be “this supports our point of view.”)

What happens when there is no data? If a tree falls in the forest, and and there is no data, is it lumber? Just asking!

What happens when you don’t treat people as data? My wife has been teaching Montessori for the past, say, 28 years. The Montessori method does not use report cards. No data files. No spreadsheet to forward to the preschool the student will move to. But on any given day, she has what some might call ‘data’ in her head. Specific ‘performance indicators’ about each student. Montessori teachers know exactly at what development phase a child is, whether he/she is moving from Number Rods to more complex math to grasp the units, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The child is not a piece of data, as there are more holistic considerations.

Which makes we wonder: Are we data driven or just unthinkingly data obsessed? Nicole Laskowski quoting a Gartner study, thinks we are the latter:

 Metrics and innovation don’t always mix. In fact, according to the analysts, having a singular focus on current performance metrics can create what’s known as “analysis paralysis,” where so much time is spent analyzing the data that a decision never gets made and risks are never taken.

It’s not the Tech companies’ fault. We simply assumed we could all run our lives like the Google’s of this world. Speaking of which, few know that Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were Montessori students. I’m willing to bet that their teachers had absolutely no metrics to indicate that they would become the founders of a data-driven culture. Or maybe they did – they just didn’t call it data!


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