X-Ray That Analytical Argument

In December 1967, the late Russell Ackoff, a celebrated Wharton professor (and a mentor of mine), declared in a classic Management Science article “Management Misinformation Systems,” that managers suffer more from “an overabundance of irrelevant information” than from “the lack of relevant information.”

A bit more recently, Nate Silver in the book The Signal and the Noise asserted that “we face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it.”

Silver goes on to argue that “if the quantity of information is increasing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn’t. Most of it is just noise, and the noise is increasing faster than the signal. There are so many hypotheses to test, so many data sets to mine—but a relatively constant amount of objective truth.”

Our challenge is to move from left to right on the following continuum:

Data → Information → Knowledge → Wisdom

One way to do so is to “x-ray” any argument that is made in a presentation, article, book, website, blog and so on. Towards this end, here’s a simple checklist that I have found helpful with both consulting clients and students:

1. What’s the message? (the idea, concept, thesis)153737901

2. What’s the rationale? (the logic, data, and/or confirming examples)

3. What’s the authority? (the credentials and objectivity of the speaker/writer)

4. What’s new? (the addition to, or synthesis of, existing knowledge; a counterintuitive finding)

5. What’s missing? (precedents, context, alternative perspectives, disconfirming examples, and/or links)

6. What’s your emotional reaction? (your gut feel)

7. What’s the takeaway? (the practical and/or theoretical value—the bottom line or “so what?”

Big Data will play an increasing role in informing management decision-making going forward. But asking qualitative questions such as those above can help to move conversation and choice in the direction of knowledge and wisdom.

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