From Data to Wisdom

Much is made today of the possible wisdom to be gleaned from a wealth of available data. I am one of those who, through experience, believe this to be true. However, there are a couple steps necessary to achieve wisdom from data. Knowledge from information leads to action and when actions are repeated enough, organizations achieve wisdom. With enormous attention cast toward “Big Data,” I’d like to emphasize that without knowledge and action, data means next to nothing. I worked as an expert in Business Intelligence, Reporting, and Analytics for ten years before shifting my focus to Enterprise Web Content Management. And while BI and Content Management are “different”, they share a similar objective —getting the right information to the right people at the right time and in the most appropriate format. Business Intelligence and big data have a special interest to me.

Imagine an organization(s) where data flows seamlessly (whether the data is internally generated or externally gathered) to create accessible data repositories against which knowledge workers have tools to mine, discover, and formulate patterns and correlations. Suddenly that data turns into information. In turn, information builds knowledge and, most importantly, is acted upon. I write ‘most importantly’ because no amount of data, information, or even knowledge makes a difference until it is actionable.

Through action, people and organizations gain wisdom.

(Big) Data -> Information -> Knowledge -> Action -> Wisdom

This (wisdom) is the promise of “Big Data”, the promise of the digital intelligence age. We all try to create actionable information to increase knowledge. It requires mind share and no small amount of attention and examination. With all of the messages we see every day, how do we create a greater mind share? The information is important, and so is the data that information is gleamed from, but information alone doesn’t improve our organization’s competitiveness. We are awash in data today and there are many people and technologies competing for our attention. The best “Big Data” solution stack may be able to Map/Reduce the data and then populate traditional or non-traditional data repositories, or both. Those data stores can then be sliced and diced and maybe someone would then come up with a great report with pie charts and trends and bar graphs. At that point, we would have taken a mound of data and created information. Maybe as technologists we’re happy with that result and the information we created. But if no one is acting because the information is not relevant or timely or applicable, then how does this create value?

If the information we produce is relevant, timely, and applicable then knowledge is created. Only with knowledge and understanding will people act. Sometimes actions do not work out as planned, but the action expands our knowledge so when we try again, our efforts are improved.

I worked for a direct marketer in the late ‘90s later acquired by DoubleClick, who was acquired by Google in 2007. The company I worked for had a large database populated by direct mail retailers such as LL Bean. All major direct mail retailers subscribed to this service and provided their demographic information on sales every quarter. Then, the company would create lengthy analysis reports and sell them back to the retailers. These reports ranged in price from a couple thousand to a couple tens of thousands of dollars. The support staff for creating these reports was around thirty people interfacing with Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Word to create a final product. My consultancy at the time took this labor intensive process and automated it. Instead of thirty people formatting Microsoft documents, we enabled these reports to be generated with a push of button in a PDF format. This increased efficiencies and revenue for the database company. Additionally, it provided retailers with improved standardized reports. These reports enabled retailers to enhance campaign targets to hotter prospects, decrease catalog production and distribution costs, and increase revenue by leveraging better information on potential and existing customers. This is an example where data (which was Big) was processed to produce valuable information reports. Retailers used this information for their own knowledge and acted upon that knowledge to gain advantages which increased revenue and decreased expense.

If you are considering a big data project, think about the information and knowledge potential. Will this knowledge be useful to your company, and is it actionable? Continuously seek feedback on the information and how to improve it. People are the most important ingredient. In order to solve their information needs, we need to ask them. People need information to gain knowledge and appropriately act. Information is relevant, actionable explanations of events and facts that people use in order to move their organizations in a proactive manner to solving their ultimate customer needs. Strive to deliver information, whenever people need it, wherever they might be on the road at home or in the office, and in a format easily grasped. When your company acts upon this information repeatedly, individuals and the organization may achieve wisdom.

Will Thayer About Will Thayer

Will Thayer is a Principal Consultant Technologist at Avalon Consulting, LLC. Will has 18 years’ experience in planning, strategy, development, and training. His expertise includes web application development, management information systems, and system development life cycle practices. As an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver, Will taught graduate and undergraduate students for 5 years. His research in Open EDI and XML EDI has appeared in books as well as trade periodicals. Will lives in Evergreen, Colorado where he enjoys skiing, hiking, biking, and camping in the Rocky Mountains with his wife Robyn and daughter Sophia.

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