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Data Darwinism

By Steve Jones,

A few years ago my son asked me to buy him The Unincorporated Man. After he finished it, he gave it to me and we read all four books in the series, which we both enjoyed. The premise of this future civilization is that each person is their own corporation, selling stock in themselves to anyone in the world. As with a company, the better your performance at life, the higher the price. However there is also accountability, with your actions, jobs, etc., potentially limited by your "board of directors", who are the shareholders in your corporation. It sounds a little drastic, but it's not as bad as you might think. It's actually a neat idea.

It's also somewhat of the way the world works now, although without all the disclosure. In today's world it's actually much easier to hide your flaws and poor performance because the information isn't always readily available to potential employers. Some of us see this in the poor performance of colleagues, who were hired with good recommendations or interviews. We may find out later that these were exaggerated, though we often can't (or won't) do anything about this, suffering through poor performance from the individual or company.

That may be changing. I ran across an interesting article where vehicle drivers were let go from their jobs because clients had rated them poorly or complained about them. There is some controversy here, but it does bring up the issue of more companies that look to "go where the data goes" in operating their businesses. It's all too easy to begin using metrics, measurements, feedback, and more to make business decisions. This is one of the driving forces being building business intelligence systems in our industry. However if the models, assumptions, or data are flawed, bad decisions are not only possible, but probable. It's easy to trust the computer's report more than is prudent, especially when we have no good way of measuring the quality, or even appropriate interpretation of the data.

There are lots of BI systems that work well, and provide companies with many benefits, but there are probably also plenty of them that don't work well and we don't hear about them. There are systems that use flawed, incomplete, or otherwise compromised models to help business leaders make decisions. Ultimately a BI system needs lots of human intelligence added to it, including judgement and refinement, constant tweaking, and a bit of common sense. I would hope that using data to cut off some service, fire an employee (or decline to interview someone), or make any far reaching decision has a lot of experience and audit built into the system to prevent its abuse.

Steve Jones

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