Informing People Does Not Improve Decisions - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management
Commentary
4/23/2007
09:25 AM
Neil Raden
Neil Raden
Commentary
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Informing People Does Not Improve Decisions

I don't typically watch C-Span, but I was watching last week because my wife was giving testimony before a Senate Committee… From Senator Gordon Smith to the esteemed panel with academic and scientific pedigrees in abundance, here was a group of people who were as well-informed on the issues as any group could be. Yet, not a single of one them was swayed from their positions by the others' testimony… So what does this have to do with BI? Everything.

I don't typically watch C-Span, but I was watching last week because my wife was giving testimony before a Senate Committee. There were two panels, each with four panelists, and they included an Assistant Surgeon General, the head of the FDA Enforcement Unit, a senior person from the NIH who is in charge of the Women's Health Initiative, the largest (and most costly) clinical study of hormone replacement therapy ever, a Harvard professor of medicine and the head the Endocrine Society. How my wife managed to get to go last and get the last word is a mystery (though it's de rigueur around here), but that isn't what caught my attention. Here is what did.From Senator Gordon Smith, who chaired the hearing, to all of the legislative aides, to the esteemed panel with academic and scientific pedigrees in abundance, here was a group of people who were about as well-informed on the issues as any group could be. Yet, not a single of one them (well, Dr. JoAnn Manson from Harvard was an exception, which surprised me) was in the slightest bit swayed from their positions by the others' testimony. In two hours, no one, except the aforementioned doctor/professor, said, "That's interesting, I've never looked at it that way." So what does that have to do with BI? Everything. There are some common notions in BI that are canonical, even though they have no basis in theory or fact. One is that providing the right information to the right person at the right time, a primary focus of BI, is the key to better decision-making. The panel today in the Senate is besotted with information, for many of them, reading and writing it is a large part of their job. They can't write a five-minute opening statement without dozens of footnotes. Yet a flood of new information that does not support their point of view is dismissed and ignored. And things haven't changed much in 500 years. Consider this passage from "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Work Systems" by Galileo Galilei: "…a very famous doctor in Venice… to see some anatomical dissection performed… he was investigating the source and origin of the nerves, about which there exists a notorious controversy between the Galenist and Peripatetic doctors. The anatomist showed that the great trunk of nerves, leaving the brain and passing through the nape, extended on down the spine and then branched out through the whole body, and that only a single strand as fine as a thread arrived at the heart. Turning to a gentleman whom he knew to be a Peripatetic philosopher…he asked this man whether he was at last satisfied and convinced that the nerves originated in the brain and not in the heart. The philosopher, after considering for awhile, answered: "You have made me see this matter so plainly and palpably that if Aristotle's text were not contrary to it …I should be forced to admit it to be true." If you want BI to be successful, you have to accept this aspect of human nature. You have to be willing to admit that getting information out is only part of the job. Being informed is only a part of making a decision. Information is not compelling evidence. So where does that leave us? I was in a meeting a few months ago where the subject was new product pricing. A team of experts, with Ph.D.s in economics and math and statistics had studied the problem for a few months and developed some very interesting models for measuring perceived value and understanding the market, the competition and the capabilities of the company itself. They proposed a series of very dynamic pricing models designed to optimize margins and explained their rationale to the senior managers in the room. It was very compelling, clearly very thorough and completely different from anything the Chief Marketing Officer had ever seen. Her response? "Thank you, that was very interesting. Let's keep talking about this." BI needs to address more than the information component of decision-making. Collaboration, social networking, exposing underlying assumptions and better representation of the meanings and relationships of things - these are the things we need to turn our attention to. We need to understand how to turn people around from unproductive positions, how to expose these points of view to commentary and how to hold people accountable for what they do instead a bunch of post mortems that obscure more than they illuminate. If we want BI to rise above cheap parlor tricks, we need to broaden the base.

Neil Raden is the founder of Hired Brains, providers of consulting, research and analysis in Business Intelligence, Performance Management, real-time analytics and information/semantic integration. Don't miss Neil's many insightful articles in the Intelligent Enterprise archive.I don't typically watch C-Span, but I was watching last week because my wife was giving testimony before a Senate Committee… From Senator Gordon Smith to the esteemed panel with academic and scientific pedigrees in abundance, here was a group of people who were as well-informed on the issues as any group could be. Yet, not a single of one them was swayed from their positions by the others' testimony… So what does this have to do with BI? Everything.

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