Data vs Insight: Which Do You Want?

Are we not actually looking for clarity?

I have many conversations with people on a regular basis regarding the collection, processing, and dissemination of data.  There are so many sources of data in our world today and each of these sources are so noisy and fighting for our constant attention.  From our smart watches to our enterprise systems, we have a need to collect and store this stuff.  At the end of the day, it really is just stuff.  There can be more to it, but oftentimes, there simply is not.  Many organizations collect data because the law or industry tells them they are supposed to.  What purpose does that ultimately serve?  Well, it checks a box that needed to be checked, I guess.  Policies like this enforce the need to collect data, but they do not necessarily provide the understanding or purpose behind that collection.  I have worked in organizations that were excellent at capturing relevant data, but did not place an emphasis on the use of that data.  Ultimately, we are after clarity and insight, not data.

What can be done to resolve this disconnect?  As usual, education is a big part of the story.  As people understand the value of information derived from data sources, it will be easier for them to collect and then to focus on the analysis that needs to take place.  In government, we need policies that not only direct collection, but also provide direction for analysis and then proper funding to back up these initiatives by placing data scientists and other specialists in the appropriate organizations. The industry needs to continue to promote the value of information derived from these sources of data.  Vendors have a role to play in this as well.  Hardware and software vendors need to educate their customers not just for the purpose of selling, but for the purpose of helping their customers succeed in the long term.  This is the perspective I think it will take to change things for the better.

There is a difference between data and information.  In my opinion, data is just stuff and collecting stuff without good reason is not useful, even with the best of intent.  Businesses and missions will never meet and exceed expectations by good intent.  We have to be proactive and make use of the resources we have, of which data is one. Let me use an example to illustrate.  If I were to take on an initiative to gather employee sentiment related to vacation days in order to retain more employees, I could begin by collecting data.  I might assign representatives to go out and visit my employees and collect their opinions on a number of issues pertaining to vacation time offered by the company.  That is just the first step.  I still have to pull all of that data together in some way to correlate and do some analysis.  I could create a database to house all of that information, but that is just step two.  Step three would involve actual analysis, and the churn of analysis would lead to a product of information.  Now this information gleaned from step three would be run through a filter where I would be looking for insight, or clarity.  The information alone is an indicator.  I would begin to see what insights about my employees’ happiness I could pull from the various pieces of information provided.

At this point, we have the ability to effect change.  Having clarity gives us the ability to effect change, without looking stupid.  For our business to grow, or for our mission to succeed, we have to be flexible to respond to change.  How do we know what changes need to take place without doing the appropriate analysis which then leads to insight and clarity.  So, how do you know if your organization is moving in the right direction to make data valuable?  Well, how many analysts do you have looking at the data you are collecting.  I mean doing actual analysis, not just facilitating collection.  If the answer is zero, then you are simply checking boxes.  If you want to see real change, driven by informed decisions, you will need to get some people, processes, and automation in place to make that happen.  What is your organization doing to actually analyze and drive decisions from data?  What resources are you using to help with this process?  Please share your experiences.

Author: Phil

Phil Williams is an engineer with around 20 years of information technology industry experience with past focus areas in security, performance, and compliance monitoring and reporting. Phil is a husband, father of 6 children, and an avid geek who loves building computers, gaming, and gadgets. He has an undergraduate degree in general IT sciences and has worked with the US Government as a contractor for over 20 years. He is now in a security solutions advisory role for a large vendor supporting commercial and enterprise customers.

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