How data and intelligence are not the same thing

Data is more and more seen as a panacea to improving business performance and providing insight. Think: data on customers, employees, machines, logistics and so on. But let’s not forget that technology is merely a tool, and data the raw materials we mine. It’s what we do with that material that matters. Duncan Davies, Commercial Director for Notify Solutions, wants to see more organisations mining the data and engaging with it to dig out the diamonds of insight and innovation.

Not a day goes by without a media story about data. Sometimes it’s the use and control of personal data (see Facebook), sometimes it’s about the stealing of data (see Yahoo) and sometimes it’s about how blindly trusting we are of ‘the data’ (see predictions on Brexit and Trump).

There’s a mistaken view that harvesting data is what it’s all about. That having the data in a cool database (ideally ‘up in the cloud’) will just throw out “answers”. Even better, if you can apply some ‘artificial intelligence’ to that data…that’s really sexy. Bringing in software tools that help gather all this data is seen as the end goal. The budget is spent. The software is deployed. And bang!

I’d argue that a lot of companies stop at that point and simply rely on the basic dashboards and standard reports they are given. Don’t get me wrong: some of the world’s greatest inventions have been stumbled upon completely by accident, or while the inventor was looking for something else (Steven Johnson calls this Serendipity and Exaptation in his great book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’). But by and large, this pursuit of data for its own sake risks losing sight of the bigger fundamental: the ability to ask the right questions. We gather all this incredible data and it just sits there waiting. Containing diamonds that might never be found.

Asking the right questions drives what data you look to gather, and what you’re looking into that data for. Even better to then share that data within the organisation so that different perspectives can be applied. But you have to do this proactively; putting data in a glass cabinet and hoping people will glance at it as they pass isn’t going to work. It needs to see a cultural shift from measuring everything, to measuring what matters.

As an innovative technology business, we’re obsessed with making data faster and easier to access (and it’s in the Cloud!). But there’s still a crucial step that businesses need to grasp, which is that data only equates to intelligence when it’s properly interpreted and delivered in a useable way.

This is a challenge to the sort of apps that are now being produced to collect data. Our Health & Safety app, Notify, is awesome at gathering really good data very quickly, and sending it to a ‘back end database’ for actioning and then into a funky dashboard for review.  We’re working on predictive algorithms that will alert users to impending issues, but in truth without the skills to interpret data and information, our users still risk missing the opportunity to engage with the data, to use it to pose questions and to drive behavioural change. We can help (we’re lucky enough to have our own data scientist) but I’d argue it’s the company that best knows the questions to ask.

Taking the data, asking questions of it, and then making changes based on that data that can be measured; now that’s intelligence.

So the next time you look at a product and get excited about all the data it can collect for you, make sure you ask yourself whether you have the organisation skills and resource to do something useful with it that truly helps your business improve and innovate.

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