Malcolm Gladwell, modern problems, and the analytics age:

(Malcolm Gladwell) spoke about problem solving and the fact that our problems today are different from those of the recent past. Our former problems were usually solved by digging up and revealing the right information. He used Watergate as an example, pointing out that key information was hidden, and the problem was solved when Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein were finally able to uncover this information that had been concealed. Modern problems, on the other hand, are not the result of missing or hidden information, Gladwell argued, but the result, in a sense, of too much information and the complicated challenge of understanding it. Enron was his primary example. The information about Enron’s practices was not kept secret. In fact, it was published in several years’ worth of financial reports to the SEC, totaling millions of pages. The facts that led to Enron’s rapid implosion were there for anyone who was interested to see, freely available on the Internet, but weren’t understood until a journalist spent two months reading and struggling to make sense of Enron’s earnings, which led him to discover that they existed only as contracts to buy energy at a particular price in the future, not as actual cash in the bank. The problems that we face today, both big ones in society like the current health care debate and smaller ones like strategic business decisions, do not exist because we lack information, but because we don’t understand it. They can be solved only by developing skills and tools to make sense of information that is often complex. In other words, the major obstacle to solving modern problems isn’t the lack of information, solved by acquiring it, but the lack of understanding, solved by analytics.

Gladwell’s insights were music to my ears, because he elegantly articulated something that I and a few others have been arguing for years, but he did so in a way that was better packaged conceptually. Several months ago I wrote in this blog about Richards J. Heuer’s wonderful book Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, and featured his assertion that we don’t need more data, we need the means to make sense of what we have. More directly related to my work in BI, I’ve stated countless times that this industry has done a wonderful job of giving us technologies for collecting and storing enormous quantities of data, but has largely failed to provide the data sense-making tools that are needed to put data to use for decision-making.

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Here are a few prior posts regarding Malcolm Gladwell (author of  “Blink” and “Outliers“):

-Malcolm Gladwell on office chairs, the Pepsi Challenge and do we really know what we want? (Video)

-Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “perverse and often baffling” (Podcast)

-Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce and happiness (Video)

About Eric Barker