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The deafening noise of data – when is enough, enough?

by Mary Frawley, with contributions and editing by Kelly Jones.

There has been an explosion in the volume, variety and velocity of data (where velocity is the speed at which it is received, stored and used). Boards of Directors can now easily access data to help support decision-making, but are they making better decisions as a result? Of the data that decision-makers could use, how should they differentiate between what is adding value and what is adding only noise? How should they navigate through the vast data landscape to determine when is enough data, enough?

The science bit:

The neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin in his book ‘The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, argues that “the information age is drowning us with an unprecedented deluge of data.” He outlines that the problem with the proliferation of information is our ability to organise and retrieve that information. Levitin also states that after making a series of trivial decisions, the brain’s ability to make big decisions with a clear mind diminishes, and decision fatigue sets in. Levitin further explains that the constant shifting of attention from one thing to another causes attention fracture and the production of cortisol a toxic stress related hormone. This in turn leads to cloudy thinking and the burn up of glucose which results in low energy levels and poor decision making.

The studies conducted on this topic show that after making a series of trivial decisions,

(such as in the case of supporting data, trying to decide what is and what is not relevant), when it comes to making bigger decisions, the quality of the decision-making is poorer.

Value-adding data – let’s see it first:

As professionals, many of us know that data to support decision-making should be efficient, i.e. it should consist of only what is necessary, it should be presented in a non-biased way, and be targeted to the decision-makers in a format they can easily digest when they require this information. However, business leaders tend to be less sure of how to actually achieve this state of data nirvana.

In my experience, most leaders will agree that good quality data inputs, which go through good quality processes will result in good quality data outputs. However, when I try to assess a root cause issue and I ask ‘what data do you collect, when, how and why?’, often these same leaders are not able to confirm these details. If those that are managing the business don’t have visibility of what they are collecting and trying to manage, decision-making will inevitably be challenged until they have addressed the lack of data visibility.

The lack of good quality data governance across a business is common place, with many business employing data management solutions which are bolted onto the existing infrastructure. Often these solutions do not speak to one another and produce different versions of the truth which in turn causes confusion and may lead to inaccurate data being reported both internally and externally.

In addition to the above, data analysts do not always scan the external environment to capture information that might be relevant to decision-making, such as legal updates and competitor strategy. As much of this information is unstructured, when analysts do seek this information out, it is often not well analysed so that it is useful to management.

When is enough data, enough?

To help answer the question of ‘when is enough data, enough?’, it is predicted that those who possess data literacy skills will be able to make this determination for each scenario presented to them.

Data literacy, the craft of being able to prioritise and successfully navigate through the data ‘noise’, is leading the charge as an essential business skill. Data literate businesses are driving data lead decision-making at all levels and within all areas of the business.

In their 2021 Future of Decisions publication, Gartner stated that “The quality of the decisions being made by these data-driven organisations is giving them a competitive edge”.

To promote better quality decision-making, the data literacy journey needs to be championed from the top of a business and all staff should be given data literacy training. If leaders are not data literate, they should address this gap and ensure that their teams also become data literate.

To ensure that they can properly focus on the key strategic decisions, leaders should consider delegating the decision-making power for lower priority decisions to staff. Leaders should also remain mindful that data analysis which considers relevant internal and external information is required to support high-quality decision-making.

To maintain a balance between using data to enhance decisions and getting lost in it, decision makers need:

  • to be very focused in what data they request,

  • be curious in their challenge of this information, and

  • ensure that they are data literate in order to understand the meaning of the results.


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