People Understanding Unlocks Tremendous Potential

Photo Cred: J Alexander Clark

You’d have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the inordinate emphasis on STEM these days. And with years of the Internet-of-Things under our belt, there is more data available at our fingertips than ever before and this is increasing at an exponential almost unquantifiable rate. Being a self-proclaimed math geek myself, I appreciate the focus particularly for those groups of people that might have a budding interest or natural inclination towards these fields but are commonly marginalized in our society. Minorities, those living in poverty and women are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to exposure and advancement in our technology driven world. It’s important but unfortunately this reframe has also brought about an imbalance that I feel is a disservice to the ever increasing digital, data-driven world we live in today. While technical skills are important and always will be, I’d argue they are the most unstable and replaceable. Technology is evolving every internet minute, and with the help of the “open” economy, the average digital native can build software or analyze data faster than ever with very little training. On top of that, the more advanced tasks are regularly being transferred to machine learning algorithms, artificial intelligence and bots. The future of technology and unlocking the power of data actually lies in a deep understanding of the way people behave and the hidden reasons why we do what we do.

I’ve always been a balance of both sides of my brain.

A mix between the “fuzzy” and the “techie” as venture capitalist, Scott Hartley puts it in his book, The Fuzzy and the Techie. He argues that fuzzy-techie collaborations are the driving forces behind the most meaningful innovation we are seeing in our world today versus the traditional view that techie’s are the innovators. When I take a step back, I think this principle, which is also the focus of a recent HBR story on the power of liberal arts education in the data age, has been a key to my success thus far in the professional world. The ability to overlay a human context to a model or a math problem. To turn a numerical result into a meaningful action for a business. Sometimes, I may over-emphasize this point, pushing empathy and first-person perspective on my colleagues and teammates, but it’s only because I feel this is so often overlooked, minimized or ignored altogether. So frequently, we look at data to just validate something we already know the answer to. And everyone knows that with a bit of foresight, you can make math or a model bend to your will and desired result.

On the other side, we all fully recognize the power of storytelling, and with math it’s no different. Humanity lays the groundwork for storytelling when it comes to numbers. It connects the isolated dots of information and observation. I think most of the technical world makes the mistake of only applying this human-centric view at the beginning and end of their workflow. The transformation happens when we build the humanity into every step of our analysis. With this, it’s much harder to lose context and introduce personal bias and there is less of an opportunity to ignore nuance. Because no one exists in a vacuum, that nuance might actually be a breadcrumb of influence. Those nuggets filled with illogical decisions and seemingly erratic behavior more often than not are signals from leading indicators of some larger, probably non-numerical factors that cultural knowledge would help us account for. When we then apply some effort to actually figuring out innovative ways to measure this cultural context, we get a clearer, more accurate picture. Ignoring these realities purely due to a lack of easily accessible measurement techniques is misleading and reductive. It also is the prevailing flaw in the world of data and analytics today. Bringing in a social science sensibility to technology can help remedy this and open our eyes to new opportunity.

Math provides a framework to analyze and explain things often invisible to the naked eye. But it’s just that, a framework, it isn’t an answer in itself. Be wary of those who put too much emphasis on the math without a clear understanding or respect for the source of the numbers. My continued focus revolves around recognizing that numbers are more than just parts of mathematical equations and algorithms, but they are representations of people, languages, places and feelings.

They are experience.

This perspective brings our human reality to the forefront of analytical thinking which is where it always should be. This unlocks the enormous potential that we have to not just solve economically driven problems but to also ensure that human beings are recognized by more than just their statistical reference point. That we are all seen as important individual threads in the living and ever-evolving fabric of our society. I believe this is where the enormous potential of data lies and I hope I can be a small part of what helps brings this fully to light.

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