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Big data analytics will never fully replace creative thought

Richard Jones

August 12, 2013

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There's a growing belief in virtually every field that mining more data and doing more to process and analyze it can help organizations improve. For-profit companies can do more to put cash in their coffers, while nonprofits can expand their outreach and help people around the world.

As technology improves, the power of big data analytics should only grow - but according to skeptics, this development may have its limits. By focusing on data quality and analytical philosophies, business leaders can certainly improve, but only to a certain point. Data can be tremendously useful, but it will never fully replace human thought.

The data craze is reaching its apex in 2013, but there are two major areas where people run the risk of getting carried away.

Marketing
Executives in the fields of marketing and advertising have tremendous potential to use data for analyzing absolutely everything. If you're producing a TV commercial, for instance, you can use consumer data to optimize every detail, from the characters to the color of the product's logo.

Overemphasizing these minor details, however, can have a harmful effect, as ZDNet recently explained. If marketers fixate too much on a minor detail like one individual color, they can start to neglect the bigger picture, explained Phil Gunter, vice president of business intelligence software firm SAS.

"It's a quasi-failure when the response back, when you're talking about a piece of advertising, is around the crayons," Gunter told the news source. "Really, the question's got to be 'Tell me about the segment. Tell me about the propositions that this segment are attracted to. Tell me about the size of the segment. Tell me about addressable market of this segment.' When you get questions like that, I think you're in a good place."

Data can help marketers determine certain elements of their campaigns. Successful marketing, however, is about more than just these elements. Abstract thought and subjectivity are also important, and marketing executives shouldn't lose sight of that.

Healthcare
Health professionals have boundless potential to do more with data. If they have detailed records on people's medical histories, they can use that information to analyze every patient, plus other individuals like them. By studying the past, they can make educated guesses about the future, potentially preventing life-threatening ailments like cancer or heart disease.

However, doctors can't solve these problems with spreadsheets alone. They also need to maintain close personal relationships with their patients, as they might discover vital information from back-and-forth dialogue, not data analysis.

IBM research fellow Kerrie Holley recently told Information Week that both avenues are viable. Big data might hold the key to smarter healthcare, but interaction and close examination must also play a role.

"This new era of computing will require more innovation and invention," Holley said. "We're seeing more devices connected to the Internet. There's a lot of machine-to-machine interaction that's made possible because we're beginning to exploit the Web as a programmable, open platform. [But] this technology will in no way replace doctors. It'll be an aid to doctors, and it will [enable] them to cut down on error rates."

While data analysis may never be the be-all, end-all solution to anyone's problems - in marketing, healthcare or any other field - it can certainly help. That's why it's important for organizations to place a premium on data quality. By gathering more information and taking the proper precautions to verify its accuracy, all firms can learn and accomplish more. It might be the key to making your next big sale, treating your next patient or accomplishing any one of countless other professional tasks.

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