Data, insight, action; missing models

A common formulation in analytics circles is data yields insights which provoke action. Stripped to the core, this is the marketing pitch for every vendor of analytics or information management tools. This pitch works because people drawn to management prefer the action end of that cycle and are inclined to do no more analysis than necessary to justify an action. “Don’t just stand there, do something!” is a quintessential managerial command (and the exclamation point is required).

We have collections of advice and commentary supporting this stance from Tom Peters’ “bias for action” to the specter of “analysis paralysis.” Mostly, this is good. Why bother with analysis or look for insights if they will not inform a decision?

Despite the claims of vendors and consultants, this data -> insights -> action chain is incomplete. What’s overlooked in this cycle is the central role of underlying models. Analytics efforts are rife with models, so what am I talking about?

There’s a quote that is typically attributed to the late science fiction author, Isaac Asimov. Like most good quotes, it’s hard to pin down the source but being the good managerial sort we are, we’ll skip over that little detail. Asimov observed that

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…”

Noticing that a data point or a modeling result is odd depends on having an expectation of what the result ought to be. That expectation, in science or in organizations, is built on an implicit model of the situation at hand. So, for example, McDonalds knew that milkshakes go with hamburgers and fries. When sales data was mapped against time, however, morning drive time turned out to be a key component of sales for McDonalds’ shakes. Definitely, a “that’s funny” moment.

That surprise isn’t visible until you have a point of sale system that puts a timestamp on every item sold and someone decides to play with the new numbers to see what they show. But you still can’t see it unless you have an expectation in your head about what ought to be happening. For a chocolate shake, the anomaly stands out to most anyone. Other “that’s funny” moments will depend on making the effort to tease out our model of what we think should be happening before we dive into details of what is happening.

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