There is a lot to be said for ‘gut feel’ or intuition and in select aspects of leadership practice more and more emphasis is being placed on intuition. William Duggan’s excellent book, ‘Strategic Intuition,’ being a case in point.
However, in the face of big data, intuition or gut feel is as useful as fending off an angry grizzly bear with a soggy sandwich. In short, you’re toast! The growth of digital data has increased exponentially with every minute producing some 204 million emails, 2.4 million pieces of content posted on Facebook, 72 hours of video on YouTube and 216 000 new photos uploaded on Instagram. That is a lot of information and data! But of course, without an ability to make sense of it, or see patterns in the data, it is pretty useless. Storing it is one thing – today over 95% of all data is stored in digital format, using it to direct activity and guide actions is quite another.
Enter big data.
The term ‘big data’ is the term used to describe how we can make sense of all this information – how to analyse it and then use the findings to predict and forecast anything from elections to the likelihood of a species extinction. The key here is not the data itself but rather our rapidly increasing ability to process it and distil useful information. Having the information is not enough; we have to use it in ways people can understand and find useful. Hans Rosling makes the valid point that besides analysing the data we have to ‘show it in ways that people both enjoy and understand’. Data visualisation has regulated the traditional spreadsheet to a place alongside the stone tablet.
In short, what all this means is that our ‘gut feeling’ is a useless predictor of what has happened or needs to happen. President Obama was the first American president to grasp the potential of data analytics in elections and his respective campaigns represent well known stories of just how effective the use of big data was in guiding his election strategy and initiatives – from where and when to campaign to how best to raise money.
A war is currently underway to control access to the data mines. Should government have a right to such data in order to analyse potential threats or not? What is sure is that this war for access to mine the data for the insights it yields is far from over and might never be over. Knowing how to understand the data and how to present it will increasingly give rise to new jobs and skillsets and leaders will increasingly be ‘dot connectors’ rather than originators of bold strategies to capture the future. Big data will smash language barriers and render redundant the need to learn foreign languages as well as people employed for such purposes. Big data will alter travel, farming, marketing, health care, entertainment, politics, the military, financial forecasting …in short, it changes everything. It will further ignite and fuel the impact of globalisation in all its expression in every possible manner and form.
Smart businesses will understand the shifts that all this necessitates – and be willing to act on this before their competitors react. Smart businesses will be willing to change their agenda in order to embrace and maximise what big data offers and by so doing avoid the almost pathological fear that many seem to have towards this new emerging reality. Leaders will need to understand the need to cultivate and hone an entirely new set of leadership skills to match the required leadership perspectives and mind-sets geared towards thriving in a world saturated in big data. Not to do so would be like trying to drive down a freeway whilst blindfolded. It is dangerous, irresponsible, crazy and will not end well.
For leaders, gut decisions might seem to make sense but they will increasing become a liability. Where big data is available, using one’s gut will be tantamount to being guilty of derelict of duty and might even carry formal censure. Pilots don’t fly planes using their ‘gut’ – the planes we so nonchalantly board basically fly themselves. There is a case to be made for pilotless planes but I suspect we are not quite ready for that…yet! Big data makes all this possible. As it is used by other expressions of artificial intelligence and robotics that draw on the information, translate and interpret it to produce things we didn’t think possible – the future becomes the here and now.
Big data is the foundation on which that future is built. Welcome to the future.