My last blog post was on the power of information. This week I take a different twist and talk about the power of data. Some would argue they are the same thing, but I believe they are two sides of the same coin. I could write an entire blog post on the difference, but I will save that for another time. Two things prompted me to write about this topic: a TED Talk by Susan Etlinger about critical thinking when dealing with data, and my recent attendance at the ARMA International conference of records managers in San Diego.
In Susan Etlinger’s talk, she stresses the need to apply critical thinking to the ever-growing stream of data we face. Unfortunately, computers cannot yet generate the thinking and cognitive processing necessary to extract nuggets of information and wisdom from raw data. Computers can only apply patterns that we introduce to them; the real job of providing context and meaning to data still comes from us. Having the smartest person interpret facts and figures in a meaningful way and in a way that will yield innovative business approaches is what provides competitive advantages for a company. We are at a point where most businesses have access to the same computing capacity and the same data coming from the same cloud, but the differentiator is increasingly the thinking human being at the end of the process.
All That Data
I was fortunate to attend the ARMA conference in San Diego last week—a gathering of records managers and information professionals. As I listened to the presentations and met with professionals, I was struck by the incredible amount of data that they are tasked with managing. Some of that data is in the form of old paper records that are being converted to digital content and indexed so it can be mined and searched. Some records are already digital but are held in many different repositories and cannot be searched across platforms and databases. For these professionals, job one is to collect everything in one place. Job two is to create meaning and context by intelligent queries. The data and the facts are present, but they cannot be converted into innovative answers until someone asks the right question. I was impressed by the practitioners I met that work in fields such as medical care, law enforcement, higher education, and government. They truly understand the monumental task ahead of them but also understand that they can make a personal difference at the end of the day.
I just finished teaching a course in information systems and management for the AIM Program. Whenever I teach, I understand that I can either present just the facts or I can help build context and meaning around those facts. I want my students to wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that they developed by analyzing the facts but also by applying critical thinking and asking the hard questions. I want them to synthesize the data from many sources until they arrive at that “aha” moment that leads to a breakthrough. This is what great research is all about and this is what great learning is all about. If I can help inspire those new and exciting combinations of data and ideas, then I have truly been successful.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.