Humanum In Machina Moving From Big Data To Smart Questions And Big Answers

When companies are using weather data to help drive shampoo sales and Amazon is trying to ship you stuff before you buy it, you might think we really are heading toward a world of Minority Report, Skynet, and The Circle. Code is certainly becoming more valuable, and the machines that create, manage, and analyze data are becoming more powerful, but humans are by no means out of the picture. In fact, the human elements of separating valuable business signal from Big Data noise is likely to become the key skill for personal and organizational success over the coming years.

We call the digital information that surrounds any person, thing, organization, process, or place a Code Halo. At first glance, this can seem like the Big Data story with a new label, but that’s not right. Data, algorithms, and analysis are essential to Code Halos, but the real story is much bigger, and it includes linking people with data.

Code Halo thinking is already driving a sea-change in industries where upstarts are usurping market dominance from prior industry leaders. (For a painful litany of those who have already missed the shift, see Blockbuster, Kodak, MySpace, HMV, and too many others.) When used to re-shape customer engagement, Code Halos can mean the difference between a successful product (the iPhone, Nest thermostats, the Nike+ Fuelband) and flops (Nook, Blackberry, Zune, Yahoo Mail).

But this shift is not confined to the Silicon Valley digerati or hipster-tech users. In fact, companies like Disney, GE, Maersk, Philips, and Allstate are showing that Code Halos are changing business and even how commerce is conducted. Many more companies – in banking, life sciences, retail, transportation, and insurance – are now actively investing to re-imagine how work is done within the enterprise.

One thing that’s separating success from failure at this shift point is the ability to derive insight that can come from a beautiful user experience coupled with data, algorithms, and new commercial models. Winners are becoming expert at extracting business meaning from Code Halo data.

But in spite of all the wishful thinking, it’s not all just about the robots. Although enabling technologies are certainly key, they’re not the whole story. The most important element of deriving insight is not about the machines, bytes of data, and algorithms. The real story is about us – people deriving insight by figuring out what the data actually means. This isn’t a story of Big Data; it’s a story about Smart Questions and Big Answers.

As human beings, we have changing moods, take risks, climb mountains, write bad poetry, fall in love, serve our community, eat food, die, and play guitar. What Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, LinkedIn, Google and the other digital winners do so well—and what often gets overlooked about what they do—is to inject humanity and judgment into the analytical process. The robots are churning away, but they have not, in fact, taken over.

Consider a simple analogy. If you tunea piano by adjusting the tension of the strings so they have precisely the mathematical pitch relationship to the general tuning standard of A440, the sound you will get when you play will be jarring to many. That’s because every piano and every set of strings is different, and a set of notes will sound different depending on the precise way tuning is done. To get a beautiful sound, you have to tension the strings slightly off the mathematically “correct” pitch so the chords resonate as they should and the music emerging from the piano sounds terrific. Those adjustments can only be made by the human hand driven by a human brain responding to information from the human ear. A robot still can’t do this well.[1]

Now innovators are colliding human code—our insights and judgment —with the code of machines—the data—to make meaning. They are putting humanity back into the machine—call it humanum in machina if you will—to create new products, recode relationships, and generate new business models.[2]

This is the key to getting from Big Data to Big Answers. Leading organizations have sophisticated equations running on nearly magical technologies churning uncountable amounts of data, but the outputs are sculpted, or tuned, by people. By us. The process needs the participation of leaders focused on results, engineers concerned with precision, and designers in love with look and feel.

Jonathan Shaw correctly noted that the process of coming to meaningful conclusions is based on the ability to ask a good question. “No matter how much data exists, researchers still need to ask the right questions to create a hypothesis, design a test, and use the data to determine whether that hypothesis is true.”[3] This requires humans and analytical robots working together. Neither can succeed without the other.

This is already happening and will accelerate in the coming quarters and years. Decision makers in companies that are looking for the hi-def digital Oracle of Delphi are going to be left flat-footed. Tools and technology will have an increasing role in business decisions, but there’s no single mechanical source of truth. We will need to wrestle with the data to make real business meaning.

DJ Patil—VP of products at RelateIQ and formerly Chief Scientist at LinkedIn—recommends making your sales metrics, delivery metrics, production metrics, and financials available to everyone in your organization. Even if it’s uncomfortable. (See my discussion with DJ here.)

The companies that will ultimately win in this Code Halo world will be the ones that re-imagine work, see business processes and customers as sources of powerful insight, and find ways to keep human judgment and values embedded in real-world tactical business decisions. Derrick Harris rightly noted that, “Big data can make life and business a lot more efficient, but for the time being, human judgment and willpower are still very much in control.”[4]

Paul, Malcolm, and Ben are from Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. They are the authors of Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business, published by John Wiley & Sons and the accompanying app, Code Halos, now available at Apple’s App Store.



[2] Deus Ex Machina, or “God from the Machine,” is a theatrical device that originated in ancient Greek theater—a ‘god’ would manifest itself on stage (popping up through a trapdoor, descending from the heavens by crane, wheeled in on a cart), and drastically impact the conclusion of the play. Over time, Deus ex machina came to mean the sudden, miraculous resolution of a seemingly intractable situation through the introduction of some new factor—person, an event, a revelation.

[3] Why “Big Data” Is a Big Deal, by Jonathan Shaw, March-April 2014, http://harvardmagazine.com/2014/03/why-big-data-is-a-big-deal.

[4] Why big data might be more about automation than insights, by Derrick Harris, JAN. 2, 2013; http://gigaom.com/2013/01/02/why-big-data-might-be-more-about-automation-than-insights/