Monday, February 3, 2014

Keeping the Human Touch in Big Data

When I was growing up, people believed that there could never be a computer smart enough to beat a human being at chess.  Now, we know there may never be a human being smart enough to beat a computer.

What nobody anticipated, however, is that the very best chess "player" happens to be a combination of man and machine, or what the chess world calls Freestyle.  Man + computer beats computer.  There are several reasons for this, one being that humans can see where different computers disagree--not unlike a weather forecaster looking at three or four storm models--and work within the variations to achieve a better result.

Of course, if chess is ever fully "solved," like checkers is today, than the machine is fine all by itself.  But then, fully-solved problems have never been things human beings spend a lot of time worrying about.

Another example where human touch applied to data improves the solution is genealogy.  In the old days before the Web, it took a Herculean effort to build a credible, well sourced family tree.  Research dead-ends could be easily encountered just three and four generations back.  Data was hard earned, sometimes involving plane trips and convincing priests and town administrators to grant access to their precious archives.

Today, Big Genealogy is moving toward a single world tree, with all seven billion of us connected globally.  Seach your name and birth date and, voila, there's your tree.  It's not hard to envision the day when the act of building a tree will be among the least important tasks a genealogist undertakes.  (Even as I write this, a 23andMe email is chirping that it's found me a "4th cousin, with likely range to 3rd or Distant cousin.)

If you're lucky enough to have a family tree, though, you know that far too many of the names and dates are just that--bits of data.  These real people lived long, full, interesting lives but are now reduced to a few dates and places.

Like Freestyle chess, then, the best genealogy involves people + data. Have you written your parents' and grandparents' biographies?  How about your own?  Maybe you have enough family stories to write about your great-grandparents?  Have you digitally recorded interviews with your relatives, or transferred the old 8MM to digital?  For that matter, have you recorded yourself?  

Now, imagine a family tree where the owner could click and see his or her ancestor from 300 years ago talking about life, family, the future--maybe celebrating a birthday or wedding.  That could be you, the ancestor.  (I don't want to wish any of us away, mind you, but it's pretty well assured that, if nothing else, we all will be ancestors one day.)  Wouldn't that be the perfect gift to leave a descendant 300 years from now? 

That's nothing less than Freestyle genealogy, human + data being better than either alone.  In fact, that's just taking all of the hard work once reserved for data collection and migrating it to something much more fun--recording your own family's story.

No place is this fundamental equation more important than in a business setting, where data is becoming an avalanche threatening to overwhelm good decision-making.  While my business school days are becoming cloudy behind me, one theme that stuck was this: Run the numbers, the metrics, the valuations and returns.  Make sure you understand what they really say.  And then, decide what you really need to do based on the people involved.

I could write about this topic all day long but will stick to one brief example.  Years ago, when Sensitech bought Ryan Instruments in Redmond, Washington, the numbers dictated that we shut down manufacturing and move it overseas.  We resisted, for a lot of important reasons--among them having a thousand years of expertise on site, being in a highly competitive space where innovation was critical and suffered when divorced from production, and because we felt ethically obligated to give the acquired team--that had been undercapitalized far too long--a chance to prove itself.  Besides, we really liked the people out there.  I'll spare you the details, but today the Redmond site is one of the company's crown jewels, having innovated itself into low cost, world class production and picked up some other essential production functions as well.  In the process it drove market prices down, launched a series of critical innovations, and extended the life of a product line for years (and maybe decades) beyond what we might have projected.

That's a kind of Freestyle management where kowtowing to data without adding in the human equation would have resulted in a vastly inferior result.  

It's almost as good as clicking on a family tree and seeing an ancestor talk about fighting in the American Revolution.  It'll be almost as good as a future descendant hearing you complain about all the snow in New England this winter or carefully explain how Tom Brady is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning, after all. 

Get to it.  Human + data.  It's not the age of Big Data.  It's the age of Freestyle.