8 Famous Philosophers’ Thoughts on Your Organisation’s Data Management Programs
You may think philosophy is too highbrow, academic and abstract to be useful in the data-driven world of competitive insight. But you’d be wrong.
Long before the internet made opinion polls easy, philosophers around the world contemplated and debated the nature of knowledge itself. Their conclusions are applicable to all kinds of knowledge in business research, from customer satisfaction to employee evaluation surveys.
Here are some of the philosophers’ top tips to make your organisation’s insight programmes wiser and more effective.
Philosophy #1: Don’t judge data by its volume
“THERE IS NO NEED TO WORRY ABOUT MERE SIZE... SIR ISAAC NEWTON WAS VERY MUCH SMALLER THAN A HIPPOPOTAMUS, BUT WE DO NOT ON THAT ACCOUNT VALUE HIM LESS.”
- Bertrand Russell (Britain, 1872-1970)
Bigger data isn’t necessarily better for your insight, and mass surveys aren’t the only way to get your information. What matters is that you ask the right people the right questions at the right time. A small amount of data, thoughtfully gathered and analyzed, yields more relevant insight than a mountain of data poorly used.
Philosophy #2: Avoid making assumptions
“I DO NOT THINK THAT I KNOW WHAT I DO NOT KNOW.”
- Socrates (Greece, circa 470-399 BC)
It takes wisdom to realise that you don’t have all the knowledge you might want. For accurate analysis and interpretation of the data your research program collects, try to identify any assumptions you make about your methods, your participants or your organization.
Test those assumptions if you can. And if you can’t test them, make sure everyone who uses your results is aware of the assumptions on which they’re based.
Philosophy #3: Understand opinions
“OPINION IS BETWEEN THE KNOWING OF THE TRUE IDEA AND THE IGNORANCE OF THE UNREAL.”
- Plato (Greece, circa 425-347 BC)
When you derive your insights from other people’s opinions through customer surveys, employee feedback and so on, it’s important to be clear about the nature of your information.
Opinions are not facts, but they are real. You can’t ignore them if you want to get ahead of your competitors, and you can’t rely purely on opinion either. Strike a balance between externally verifiable data such as demographics and transaction records, and subjective data from opinion polls and sentiment scoring.
Philosophy #4: Use your best judgement
“WE BELIEVE MORE THAN WE CAN PROVE, AND KNOW MORE THAN WE CAN SAY.”
-Michael Polanyi (Hungary, 1891-1976)
Polanyi argued that all claims to knowledge ultimately rely on personal judgement — that we humans can’t make truly objective decisions because we’re always driven by our passions and beliefs. Our psychological quirks, such as confirmation bias, make rationality unattainable.
Try to stay aware of the effect your personal judgement has on your research program, your analysis choices, and the eventual insight you gain.
Philosophy #5: Don’t rely on memory
“IT IS HARD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER MY OPINIONS, WITHOUT ALSO REMEMBERING MY REASONS FOR THEM!”
- Friedrich Nietzsche (Germany, 1844-1900)
Nietzsche’s point was about the changeable nature of opinions (see Philosophy #3), but it also drives home the unreliability of memory. The longer you wait to ask someone a question, the less reliable their memory is of the event you’re asking about. To get the most accurate, valuable answers, collect feedback at the “moment of truth” while the memory is still fresh.
Philosophy #6: Don’t expect certainty
“I THINK, THEREFORE I AM.”
- Rene Descartes (France, 1596-1650)
After struggling to think of any knowledge of which he could be absolutely certain, Descartes eventually admitted the only thing he couldn’t doubt was that he was thinking.
Don’t expect all your insights and decisions to come from a position of 100% certainty. If you have a hypothesis, test it. If it seems to apply in all or at least most relevant cases, test it some more. If it’s hard to deny or disprove, call it a theory and keep using it. Continuous evaluation and adjustment don’t require perfect certainty, only confidence and dedication to your organization’s objectives.
Philosophy #7: Keep knowledge useful
“THE END OF KNOWLEDGE IS POWER… THE SCOPE OF ALL SPECULATION IS THE PERFORMING OF SOME ACTION, OR THING TO BE DONE.”
- Thomas Hobbes (Britain, 1588-1679)
Abstractions and thought experiments are fascinating, but you need insight that’s both actionable and helpful. For example:
●“70% of your organisation’s employees have brown hair.”
This information is not directly actionable
●“10% of your customers want to eat chocolate while they try on clothes.”
Actionable but not helpful, unless you want your products covered in chocolate fingerprints!
●“When employee engagement scores are high, we see a noticeable lift in customer satisfaction levels.”
This is actionable and helpful.
Philosophy #8: Plan your actions
"KNOWLEDGE AND ACTION ALWAYS REQUIRE EACH OTHER… WITH RESPECT TO ORDER, KNOWLEDGE COMES FIRST, AND WITH RESPECT TO IMPORTANCE, ACTION IS MORE IMPORTANT.”
- Zhu Xi (China, 1130-1200)
There’s a big difference between having actionable insight and actually taking action. To make sure something happens with the results of your research, plan your actions from the start.
When you collect a piece of data, know why you’re collecting it, how you intend to analyze it, and what you’ll do after you’ve drawn your insight from it. And make sure your plans align with your organization’s overall vision and objectives.
Successful business insight is less of a hard science than you might have expected. Yes, it involves mathematics and data, but it also involves ethics and opinions. Add a touch of these philosophies to your insight programs to improve the results? Find us over on LinkedIn or Twitter to comment!
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