Big Data, Good Information and A Way For You To Use It

In this article I want to explore 3 connected ideas. The first is about big data, the phenomenon that now makes available enormous, staggering, volumes of information almost instantaneously. The second is a condition that says information already known to us can limit how big data can be used because there are other types of knowing to expand thinking. And the third idea is the sum of the first two: that the intersection of big data and a different way of seeing information means a model must be designed to utilize large amounts of validated information in a reasonable way.

So the era of big data is here. Imagine Niagara Falls and the millions of gallons of water that shoot over the precipice virtually every minute. That’s the scale of information we envision when thinking of the amount of data we can reach out and grab—or in some cases is pushed to us—everyday.  It would be impossible to know it all. But one benefit of massive volume is, when looked at through a certain lens, we have an opportunity to connect seemingly unrelated bits of data and discover trends, make predictions, even pre-position products and services long before we click, point or touch. It’s the compilation of colossal amounts of data that presents a challenge. How do we pluck just the right information we need from this torrent of bits?  This is the difficulty with information management in the era of big data; it’s like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. Our need is not to get information it’s how to get just the right content to help us work with more accurate and insightful facts and, smarter and faster?

Clearly then we see how working out a process to employ big data and make quality business decisions is difficult. Furthermore consider this context, our second condition:

“There are known knowns” began an answer to a question at a US Department of Defense News Briefing made by Donald Rumsfeld while serving as United States Secretary of Defense in February 2002. Actually, here’s the whole tortured phrase… “there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Though it may seem convoluted it is a “brilliant distillation of a quite complex matter,” said Mark Steyn, a Canadian columnist and echoed by many others, even legions of his detractors.

While good information on its own is valuable its utility when combined with other data to discover other, perhaps new data and still newer meanings is really profound. Sometimes the information is known and we need to fasten it in context, other times we don’t know there is… and what is…  trustworthy information but have to discover it; and more abstract yet, as unknowns the potential of useful but opaque information demands we peer into the future and ask ‘what if’ and proceed to manufacture information on (hopefully intelligent and intuitively perceptive) speculation.

If you’re in the business of solving problems—and who isn’t really—you’ll need an information life cycle model to regard big data and the ‘knowns issue’ to manage a collection of information for maximum use. And beware; too much data without vetting and affirmation, means you might miss the really important stuff, an effect that keeps security services awake at night. And therein lies the third concern of massive information management.

By summary then, we face three elements in our quest to make big data work for organizations:

    1. Gathering information factoring the effect gained when combinations of content reveal even newer more, newer, meaningful data
    2. Respecting knowns and unknowns as  fact and as potential ‘black swans’ (an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences) that can and will skew results if not discovered prior or during information capture or application
    3. Culling the really useful information or data—those bits directly related to the problem at hand—from the gargantuan amount of information flying about making it accessible, contextual and changeable.

Here’s a model than might help us slow down a bit, turn down the faucet and cull out know information and potentially new content when big data offers additional tonnage of content.

InfoMgmt

The flow chart illustrates how information would be categorically organized; a model for the standardization of an information life cycle in big data world.

Ultimately culling useful information from an almost limitless stream comes down to energy, resourcefulness and commitment. When building a learning course for example, your subject matter experts deliver very specific information as they must do. However, is there other data in text, as visuals, in video that might provide a different way to see the information? Clarifying content by shifting the context just a little bit can often shine a light into corners formerly unseen. Whether one has the time or inclination to make the effort to go shopping for more information is dependent on time and budget, yes, however, when looking to make learning better and richer, drinking from the stream is often a task worth enduring. Creating metaphors mined from a combination of newly discovered information can improve the user experience—and enjoyment—like spinning a kaleidoscope and seeing new patterns. Using a model such as the one proposed might make such an effort more reasonable.

LEADERS ARE TOO FAR UPSTREAM TO EFFECT CHANGE—TALENT MANAGEMENT MUST BE FOCUSED DOWNSTREAM ON MANAGERS

Who hasn’t been the recipient of the exhortations of motivation? It seems everywhere; used to suggest, cajole and inspire workers. Indeed exhort all of us to get out in front of a task and get going. I remember, I think, a professor or mentor of mine in the education business who consistently said that motivation, a mental state, is not what we want to create. No, he said, what we really want is movement.

Movement is measurable, while motivation lies within us affected by a variety of mental attitudes and internal prejudices. Whereas movement can be evaluated against expectations or scales of achievement, motivation is opaque to the organization seeking its presence.

This may not be news, but in the context of leadership and management, the misapplication of either motivation or movement in an opposing context can often lead to problems. Furthermore, with the push towards the nurturing of talent; talent management as its referred, it’s worth a look at how these states might be aligned to justify the effort, time and resources placed in readying current employees for more responsibility.

The End of Motivation?
No discussion of motivation can take place without clearing up the idea of incentives. Leaders continually seek ways of extracting more or better from their minions, only to find most systems never seem to yield consistent results. Incentivizing workers of any level with rewards, extrinsic or intrinsic seems to work only when there are simple goals to achieve and solid rules to guide performance. The problem of if-then reward schemes is a narrow focus on the task at hand. In many studies, incentives have been shown to effectively kill creativity. In sales and mechanical tasks, incentives may work but only sometimes, and not for long. However, as Daniel Pink has noted, as soon as performance requires any additional cognitive skill (e.g. reasoning) even a larger reward leads to decreased performance. He notes that the London School of Economics has found financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance. And not to be overlooked, robotics are increasingly eliminating the types of work for which incentives would prove even marginally valuable.

So what to do? Firstly, let’s accept motivation for movement lies in the realm of management and distinct from leadership. The traditional definition of management says if you want compliance then create a linear system of compartmentalized tasks and add people adequately skilled to so function. Then stand back and measure, doling out cash to the top performers. The disconnect between this conceit and the new working environment fails to account for the types of problems so prevalent now—devoid of a clear set of rules, or a single solution or only one right answer. More often than ever before, business problems demand more right brain, conceptual activity. When challenges are mystifying and abstract, if-then reward systems/incentives don’t work. Since most jobs that demand compartmentalization and linearity are so easy to outsource (or robotize), tradition bound incentives, or motivation through rewards are useless. Nevertheless, what about managers who must raise the performance of workers, achieve cost/time/efficiency savings, another top, or bottom line positive changes?

Science and Business
There is a mismatch between what science knows and business does. For instance, we know, and studies show when people want to succeed because the problem matters, because it’s important or interesting or because it is bigger than themselves, they require no external rewards to perform at high levels. An operational paradigm that recognizes mastery, autonomy, and purpose will encourage workers to respond with energy to the types of business challenges in today’s workplace. If managers want workers to perform up, then the challenges and types of work that must be solved have to be designed to respond to these human factors. Is it the job of managers who require relatively simple tasks to be executed to re-form the jobs not into compartments of interchangeable elements but to something more interesting? The answer is yes. If we need new managers capable of thinking this way than that’s where talent management learning might start. Remember it’s not the manager who does the work…but managers need to set conditions where others can and do to their utmost abilities. Some might say this is starting to sound like leadership. But leaders themselves are too far distant from actual work.

Why Managers Need to be Leaders
The 20th century business model erects a formidable wall between management and leadership. Yet in this century it should be clear anyone in authority—having the responsibility to move (not just motivate) people to perform must embody both managerial skills and leadership qualities. When companies speak of talent management they still, in most cases, make distinctions among the types of employees who earn or receive the types of learning that prepares them for one role or the other. That distinction might best be obliterated. If managers are incapable of leadership perhaps they should not be managers. Not to be harsh but given the types of conceptual as well as practical business challenges that will engage enterprises big and small if there is no leadership in management (and the converse it true) success will be most difficult. Workers as people are different; those who guide their tasks had better be aligned to their ways.

Leadership Is Too Far Upstream
We know leadership has two distinct functions particularly in large enterprises; imbuing the business mission with vision and tone and setting priorities and policies. However to change performance I suggest unless a leader is in total control—think Jack Welch or Steve Jobs—they are too distant—to far upstream from the action to make a difference in how people move and their commitment to performance. Even Jobs, perhaps the most hands-on of any modern executive even with supreme governance required intermediaries, subordinates…managers to transfer his visions into reality.

Without direct control of how problems are phrased and scoped, organized and aligned, leaders may exude all the power their words can muster but won’t help a local team produce better or faster solutions.

Here’s a descriptive chart breaking down leadership and management from different perspectives:

    Leadership   Management
Core Art Science
Visionaries Technicians
Process Upstream–Strategic Downstream–Tactical
Personality Driver Charismatic Pragmatic
Foundation Situational Empirical/Formulaic
Modality Front, top, prior to action Within or during action
Structure Ideas, theory Hands-on, get it done
Action Thinking Scheduling
Metric KPIs FTEs
Skill Motivation Movement

The Talent Management Function
There’s no question leadership is vital to any enterprise. In addition, leaders can come in all shapes and sizes, talents, strengths, weaknesses and deficits. Many companies thrive with lousy leadership—but none can survive without skilled managers, especially those who can meld some of the qualities of leadership into the organizing behaviors of managing.

I suppose the final tally of all the characteristics in the chart can be boiled down to the simple idea that talent management learning programs should be less focused on building leadership and more attuned to managerial competence. Bringing management into a 21st century paradigm will directly encourage people to do great work. Employees will move towards excellence when problems support autonomy, permitting their own way of working out a problem, provide opportunities and tools to allow mastery to flourish and offer a clear purpose that serves the greater service. Incentives, no matter what type are contradictory to this type of cooperative milieu. Managers who are skilled in creating this type of work situation, who have received the education and training they need to create such an environment will be the backbone of every successful enterprise. Shifting resources from building leadership qualities for leaders only to ensuring hands on managers have the skills and knowledge, techniques and tactics they need, will lay a foundation to ensure the survival of the enterprise even as leaders wash in and out with the tides.