Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Brooks: "What Data Can't Do"

As a humanist I really like this David Brooks column.  He reminds us that in the business world data only goes so far.  Data does not have social capacities.  It does not understand context.  It cannot address "big problems." And it "obscures values."

I was reminded of this today as I talked to a history student who is a finalist for a lucrative job at a major corporation because she was able to articulate the value of a history major in the world of business.

Here is a taste of Brooks's op-ed:

Not long ago, I was at a dinner with the chief executive of a large bank. He had just had to decide whether to pull out of Italy, given the weak economy and the prospect of a future euro crisis.

The C.E.O. had his economists project out a series of downside scenarios and calculate what they would mean for his company. But, in the end, he made his decision on the basis of values.

His bank had been in Italy for decades. He didn’t want Italians to think of the company as a fair-weather friend. He didn’t want people inside the company thinking they would cut and run when times got hard. He decided to stay in Italy and ride out any potential crisis, even with the short-term costs.

He wasn’t oblivious to data in making this decision, but ultimately, he was guided by a different way of thinking. And, of course, he was right to be. Commerce depends on trust. Trust is reciprocity coated by emotion. People and companies that behave well in tough times earn affection and self-respect that is extremely valuable, even if it is hard to capture in data.

I tell this story because it hints at the strengths and limitations of data analysis. The big novelty of this historic moment is that our lives are now mediated through data-collecting computers. In this world, data can be used to make sense of mind-bogglingly complex situations. Data can help compensate for our overconfidence in our own intuitions and can help reduce the extent to which our desires distort our perceptions.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

His bank had been in Italy for decades. He didn’t want Italians to think of the company as a fair-weather friend. He didn’t want people inside the company thinking they would cut and run when times got hard. He decided to stay in Italy and ride out any potential crisis, even with the short-term costs.

OTOH, in the legal business, there was a law firm called Brobeck, that rode the tech boom long and hard.

When the tide turned, its CEO, Tower Snow, refused to cut back on people for the same reasons--that Brobeck would be known as a soulless employer.

Well, Brobeck collapsed and dissolved, and over the next 5 years virtually every law firm in the country ended up doing the same program of belt-tightening and deadwood-shedding that Tower Snow [albeit with admirable principle] had refused to be the first to do.

Frankly, at the time, I agreed with tower Snow, that a firm that shows no loyalty earns no loyalty. But we were both wrong. A dead business employs nobody.

With all due respect, there's "history," and then there's history.

https://collaboration.bus.emory.edu/course/ChrisRider/Shared%20Documents/Rider_Negro_Roberts_April2011.pdf