Big data informing and uninforming?

There's an inherent promise in the idea that 'big data' will help us unlock various mysteries, solve all types of problems, and see or understand things from new perspectives. At a meeting I was at last week on 'Big Data in organisation design, development and workforce planning' this seemed to be the line we were taking.

By 'big data' I think we meant the vast amounts of structured and unstructured information amenable to being captured and coded into a computer where it is stored, manipulated and analysed through skills of data scientists who have expertise in machine learning, computational analysis, maths and statistics. But don't worry if you aren't sure what 'big data' is – take a look at an article that offers the varied definitions from 40 big data scientists.

For organisation design work using 'big data' and data visualisation is useful for developing scenarios and models, costing changes, assessing impacts of various changes that could be made and so on (See Rupert Morrison's book Data Driven Organisation Design for more on this.)

However, we have to be careful if we rely on the 'big data' interpretations and analysis as our only source of decisions about organisational design. Data based logic has both negative and positive possibilities. A striking 'graphic manifesto' from Jonathan Harris points to this.

It opens with the sentences. 'Data will help us remember, but will it let us forget? It will help politicians get elected, but will it help them lead?' It continues through a series of haunting questions which, months after the exhibition where I saw this, are still alive in my mind.

Although some of the ethical and moral implications of big data (see, for example, the US Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society for more on this) are being researched, less explored seems to be the impact of the data scientist's cultural orientation and design thinking that must have a bearing on how the data is captured, manipulated and analysed. The way we manipulate and present big data isn't neutral. It has a level of subjectivity that can keep important questions at bay: 'It will help farmers engineer crops to produce bigger yields, but will it keep corporations from patenting our food?'

In Jonathan Harris's words 'in fields ranging from education, to government, to healthcare, to advertising, to dating, to science, to war, we're abandoning timeless decision-making tools like wisdom, morality, and personal experience for a new kind of logic which simply says: "show me the data."'

A couple of FutureLearn course that I've taken (Big Data: from data to decisions, and Big Data: data visualisations) both of which are excellent in many respects lack the mention of the moral, ethical or subjective limitations of making decisions based on big data interpretation, or of visualizing data in a particular way.

As a small group of us, at the meeting I mentioned above, discussed big data in organisation design we focused on the limitations of a simply data driven approach. 'Evidence' is not enough to balance intuition, hunches, experiences, emotions, political machinations, and all the stuff that contributes to an organisation design but is not capturable.

In a previous role I had where we were using Decision Lens (a data driven tool) to support our organisation design work I had to laugh when we went through the whole data based decision making process and came up with 'the answer', only to have one of the leadership team say – 'Well my hunch is that this is the wrong answer. I don't think we should go with it.'

Big data can inform us and it can leave us uninformed. Let us be aware of the downsides of trying to data-ify subjectivity or shelve the pathways of wisdom, morality, philosophy, and human experiences in helping us make careful organisation design choices. Let us be aware of the inherent risks in relying on just big data to give us good insightful information that lead to human and high-performing organisations.

What's your view on Big Data as an organisation design tool? Let me know.

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