With the rising tide of business data, our human capacity to interpret and understand all this information will need to shift gear.
Already in the last 5 years organisations have been shifting out of flat spreadsheet land, in which numbers are presented (pies and bars or simple statistics,) based directly on platforms as simple as Excel. Ten years ago an executive could bark at their analyst: “Give me the numbers!” and really, they could still handle it – all the numbers.
But now that volumes have grown, the pies and bars and simple outputs are not enough – and one response from organisations is to dashboard the data (creating look-up systems to help wade through all the layers of data,) or ask researchers to do a better job of compiling the story from its multiple sources – those customer feedback channels combined with social media streams and integrated with sales data. This is just about manageable at present – but with the availability of relevant data soaring by an estimated (McKinsey) 45% per annum, current day solutions are going to struggle within 18 months or so.
People are simply getting swamped.
But the answer is available, and it involves a shift of paradigm from a numbers-reporting focus, back to a storytelling focus. After all numbers only ever represented the story to begin with. As I say – data is not about data, it’s about people – and always was. The sales figures? They tell the stories of thousands of customers who made individual decisions.
Story-telling, and the capacity to understand and recall stories, is a fabulous human capability that we develop from infancy. Through stories we learn about the complexities of our social moral codes, or about elements of human character that are to be enshrined. This is complicated stuff, yet easily interpreted once delivered within a clear story line. We are wired this way. Luckily. We can handle Shakespearian themes, we can understand great tragic turning points and the ins and outs of the complex human condition. We can do this at age 16 – we don’t need an MBA to understand a story.
Now storytelling is an art, and it involves a lot of skills and story-craft. It doesn’t need to be high literature to succeed (hey, we have John Grisham et al to prove that simple techniques can entertain us) but increasingly it will be a requisite skill of the near future.
Analysts will need to know the difference between narrative (A King died, then the Queen died,) and plot (the King died, then the Queen died, of grief.) They will need to be stronger and picking out the information that explains why things happen, and stronger at asking questions to give us better, more powerful data about human motivations. (Demographics are not a strong basis for a story.) Most of all they’ll need empathy – a nose for a good story and the capacity to assemble the facts, interpret what’s going on (it is there somewhere amongst all those billions of lines of information,) and get up in front of the CEO and be able to say:
“Chief, I want to tell you a story…I want to tell you a fable that reminds me of King Canute….”
In other words to boil all that information down into a drama that can be processed on a human scale by a board of directors.
All our marketing activities. All our business challenges. All those facts and figures about a changing society. They are not about numbers. They’re about people and about the stories of those people.
How equipped are we to understand these, en masse, and to tell these tales in a form that enables our employers to understand, amongst the blizzard of numbers, that their company is seen, basically, as the Grinch that Stole Christmas?