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Too much hay

“What they are doing is making themselves dysfunctional by taking all this data.”

—William Binney, former senior NSA official talking about his previous agency

I was fortunate many years ago to visit Trinity College in Dublin with my children and see The Book of Kells. My wife is a talented artist who has drawn many detailed pictures, but this book (actually four volumes of which you can only see one page at a time under glass) is fantastic and otherworldly! Even my children, young at the time, were blown away. I was dumbfounded at how someone from approximately 800 AD could draw so precisely and beautifully in vivid color. The detail was completely overwhelming.

A client recently sent a financial plan to several of us for feedback. It was a beautiful piece of work with many tabs. Data from numerous sources were rolled up to an extremely detailed forecast. Though not hand-drawn by monks in Ireland, it was as detailed as The Book of Kells. The management team had obviously spent hundreds of accumulated hours on it. Unfortunately, there was so much detail that it obscured the big picture.

What businesses can do with “big data” is absolutely fascinating. In my previous life as an executive, our inability to measure advertising effectiveness always frustrated me. In today’s world, targeted marketing with a measurable ROI is entirely achievable. Datalogix is a Colorado company that is a great example of this.

Applying analytical tools to extremely large datasets to reach a conclusion (or at least a supposition!) is no longer “Star Trekkie.” Consumer behavior lends itself quite well to these techniques. Isolating the relevant factors and processing power are the keys to success.

Leaders who look at large amounts of data to help them guide their company must be careful. Some data is irrelevant. Some data is interesting but is not predictive. Some data is predictive but only on Tuesdays in Omaha.

I’m not remotely qualified as a biblical scholar, but I once tried to read the Bible from cover to cover as a teenager. (As I recall, I didn’t finish. I needed more pictures.) If you took lessons from a particular passage out of context, you might behave more like a Klingon warrior than a good Christian. There is lots of “data” in there. Even that august document has to be synthesized for many of us with a top 10 list of commandments.

Leaders must ascertain what’s most important in their business and learn to synthesize the data to seek understanding and then take action rather than get mired in the detail. When searching for the needle in a haystack, you ultimately have to reduce the amount of hay.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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