Data is being generated, created, tracked and measured at an ever-increasing rate. Our online behavior is being tracked and measured. Our mobile devices are sending back packets of information to a variety of services.
We’re entering an era of ubiquitous data. We are able to get instant updates regarding the people, places and things we care about. And the people, places and things we care about are getting instant updates about us.
There are an increasing number of data points that are gatherable about everyone. For an example, compare a business card from the late 1990s to your current business card. And that’s just the stuff that is overtly and enthusiastically volunteered.
For marketers and analysts, this increase in data has been mostly helpful. We can now observe deeper levels of interaction between people and the things we make or sell or promote or represent.
Where once we had only intuition to guide us, now we have data. Data-driven decision-making (a skill) is more scalable than intuition (a talent).
But there are things we lose in a world that is awash in data.
We lose some privacy
The easy loss to list, when it comes to ubiquitous data, is privacy. There are a great many organizations working to balance the desires of marketers with the desires of people who value their privacy.
Conversations regarding privacy in the world of ubiquitous data usually center around the concept of personally identifiable information (PII).
When you, as a marketer, want to connect your Web analytics or mobile analytics data with your specific customer records in your CRM, you’re looking to exponentially increase the PII of your system.
When you’re getting creeped out by advertisements that seem to follow you from website to website, you’re experiencing one of the losses of privacy that comes with ubiquitous data.
Privacy is a major issue. How you approach it and understand it in relation to your business objectives will determine your strategy for dealing with privacy. There are increasing legal aspects to this, as well.
If you want to engage the topic of data, privacy, human desire and business fully, an excellent foundation in the concepts involved can be found in Neil Postman’s 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death."
Though the book obviously predates the Web and our current abilities to aggregate data, it hits all of the major points to consider.
Privacy is the thing lost by customers and people who use digital devices, or interact with them voluntarily or involuntarily. Organizations lose something different.
We lose some decision-making ability
"But Gahlord," I hear you saying, "Aren’t you like ‘the data guy?’ How can ubiquitous data be making it harder to make decisions?"
There are phrases that come to mind: "paralysis by analysis," and "information overload." These conditions are real and we’ve all encountered them.
I hear about them when a real estate client calls to talk to me about a search engine optimization article she read — at 2 a.m. on a weeknight. She’d been reading and gathering as much information as she possibly could in order to make an important decision.
The problem is that there is no end to the amount of information this real estate agent could encounter. At no point would she be able to feel like she had even 80 percent of the information available.
There was no knowing how much more information existed, so there was no knowing how much information was enough for her to make a decision. More importantly, she recognized that she might not have the skills required to assess the information she was absorbing.
This sort of situation is common now. If we can gather more information, we believe that we can make a better decision. And the more important the decision is, the more information we want to gather. The problem is that, in a world of ubiquitous data, there is no end to the information we can gather.
Instead of acting on our decisions, we get stuck in a never-ending process of observation, looking for even more data to refine our decision-making.
Consider it this way: In a world where there were only 10 things to know about anyone, we could create programs if we knew just a handful of things. In a world where there are millions of things to know about someone, how many do we need to know before we start doing something useful?
This is challenging for individual decision-makers like real estate agents or heads of teams. Learning to make decisions when you don’t have all of the potential information is "uncomfortable-making."
This discomfort is increased exponentially as more people get involved in decision-making. This is why it’s harder for larger organizations to adopt data-driven practices.
We experience this changing standard in the form of questions.
"What’s the ROI (return on investment) of social media?" is a classic. Leaders rarely ask about the ROI of the telephone, or having a physical storefront.
But social media, a channel that has become available along with the advent of ubiquitous data, is required to have some specific ROI.
Of course, it’s good to evaluate ROI on programs. But the different standards and the different requirements of which programs do or do not require an ROI are related to the data available and the comfort organizations and individuals have with data-driven decision-making.
Before ubiquitous data, it was possible to appear to know everything there was to know. Now, with so many data points available and new ones becoming available every day, it is no longer possible to appear to know everything. Or at least, it isn’t possible to appear to know everything for very long.
The human factors of loss
As more and more points of data are generated and crammed into burgeoning cloud-based big data storehouses, our comfort with finite and infinite data possibilities will have to change.
The potential exists for us to lose:
- credibility by not understanding data;
- initiative by not understanding data quick enough;
- stability by not understanding data deeply enough;
- strategic advantage by not using advantage at all.
Right now, the skills required to make sense of piles of data are not commonplace. Few leaders have deep skills in these areas outside of data-specific industries. Even fewer front-line agents and workers have these skills.
Many organizations appear to be satisfied to silo responsibility and understanding of data into a department or a couple of people who may or may not have other responsibilities. That doesn’t cut it.
And the sense of unease that organizations experience around digital initiatives is directly related to how much this approach doesn’t cut it.
Ubiquitous data is, at the core, a human resources challenge. And it isn’t the traditional "I don’t have enough butts in seats to make my business prosper" kind of human resources challenge — it’s a cross-department, cross-hierarchy general data literacy challenge; from the top down or from the bottom up, either way.