Meaure with Data, but Plan with Wisdom
Offering advice on how to manage data reminds me of the old analogy between symptom and causes. It goes something like this: Medication used to treat the symptoms of a disease (for instance, pain medication) has a nasty tendency to create a whole new set of problematic symptoms, and these symptoms in turn get treated with a whole new set of medications that once again lead to a whole new subset of side-effects, and so on. In other words, focusing on symptoms instead of deep issues only leads to a vicious cycle of bigger problems.
A similar cycle emerges in the misguided management of data. In this version of the analogy, the symptom is too much data; the treatment generally involves some immediate, practical means of managing and organizing that data into useable information. But, while necessary, gathering and managing data into information only gets you so far. It's not an end in itself.
Data is messy. Like the tickertape of extraneous reports that scroll across the evening news, too much data is nothing more than a distraction. And, as with any mess, an excess of data will quickly put a wrench in the operational works. By way of example, I’m thinking of some very useful comments offered in response to a recent blog I posted on LinkedIn. The topic of my blog was, appropriately enough, how to manage a mess of marketing data. As one commentator pointed out, excess data is “typically the problem” when companies “collect data, purely for the purposes of collecting data.” Another added that
Too much data is just as bad as no data at all. Especially, if you… don't utilize… it… Look around your company, floor by floor… If you see everyone working with paper, you know you have too much time being spent away from your customers, by too many people collecting data.”
These comments describe how easily and how commonly the collection of data emerges as an emtpy process without substance--a superficial treatment of symptoms ungrounded to more fundamental concerns. As a former teacher, I saw all-too-often how easily institutions could confuse these distinctions. Students were taught to confuse schoolwork with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.
Instead of pratices grounded in meaningful, big-picture goals, any institution can fall into some version of the tendency to maintain formal processes that lose track of substantive, meaningful outcomes. As the comments from LinkedIn point out, these same dangerous tendencies also threaten the effective use of data: To expand sales, we can tend to over-focus on quantitative reports of client data, while ignoring the qualitative good of delivering meaningful service to real people.
For me, the wisdom—and I do mean wisdom—of these comments speaks to more than the operational challenges of excess data. Rather, they speak to a broader cultural problem that arises in a range of institutions and professions: The dangerous tendency to unquestionably equate more with better. According to this logic, the more treatment there is, the better are the results; instrumental escalation is somehow presumed to lead to success.
The more-is-better logic operates on the following, highly problematic assumptions:
- Only that which can be measured is true knowledge.
- The more knowledge we have, the better.
- There are no significant distinctions between information and knowledge.
- Wisdom is an undefinable, unmeasurable, and thus unimportant, category.
- There are no limits to our ability to assimilate growing mountains of information, and none to our ability to separate essential knowledge from that which is trivial, misleading, or even dangerous.
- The acquisition of knowledge carries with it no obligation to see that it is responsibly used.
Effective use of marketing data thus requires more than an empty process of measuring data metrics. After all, as marketers know all too well, while click counts and shares correlate with sales and provide a useful barometer for growth, correlation, as the truism goes, is not causation.
How to Avoid Over-Focusining on Data
To maintain clarity, it's helpful to maintain awareness of the differences between data and information, information and knowledge, knowlegde and wisdom. Some like to organize these distinctions on a hierarchy called the DIKW pyramid:
We need to collect data. We need to measure this data to turn it into meaningful information; we need to organize this information--on a dashboard, for instance--into knowledge.
But, in the end, effective marketing requires we use that information wisely. Confuse these distinctions, and your efforts can devolve into self-perpetuating cycles of empty work and lost time; worse, you lose the substance and vision required for delivering truly meaningful content to your audience.
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