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The 'reality' of truth - does it enable data-driven decisions?

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee February 15, 2023
Summary:
Peter Coffee of Salesforce highlights why enabling better decisions is an ongoing quest.

Sometimes, people use a variety of words for what might seem like just one idea. There’s value to be found, though, in figuring out if there are differences that make a difference.

The example I have in mind, just now, is the use of words like “data' and 'information” as if they’re merely synonyms meaning (in our modern world) “mass quantities of bits.” There’s opportunity, and need, to recognize and require a value-add in refining the first of those terms to become the second.

Further, there are additional words that imply still greater value in return for thoughtful and disciplined effort. If we don’t think about it, the path of least resistance leads to doing more of the least value-adding things – and congratulating ourselves on what’s really not much of a success.

We can leave it to philosophers, I hope, or maybe to quantum physicists, to question whether there is more than one 'reality' at any given time. Let’s agree, for now, that there are such things as objective and measurable truths.

Truth

What’s clear, though, is that at any instant, most of what’s 'true' is irrelevant to any decision we need to make or any action we need to take. Is a particular automobile royal blue, navy blue, or teal in color? Equipped with a set of Pantone swatches, and having paid the appropriate license fees, we can measure and associate the color of the car with a name that others will recognize.

But if the action at hand is deciding which way to jump, to keep that oncoming car from killing us, we can probably agree that the color does not matter. Nor does the make, the model, or how often its engine oil has been changed, even though a prospective purchaser of that car might want to know all of those things.

This is why it’s interesting to appreciate that the root of the word “data” is not, as I once assumed to be obvious, a notion of 'fact' or even 'record of a fact'. Rather, the root of our word 'data' is a Latin word for 'a thing given'. I remember that idea banging about in my head for a bit, when I first learned this word origin - a piece of reality, no matter how carefully measured and recorded, does not metamorphose into 'data' until it has been transmitted to someone, presumably with a purpose in mind for either the one who gives it or the one who requested it. If I’m buying the car, its color is data. If I’m trying to dodge it, telling me the color wastes brain cycles that I can’t currently spare.

Information

What, then, of the next-level idea of 'information'? The verb 'to inform' has been in our language longer than the noun of “information” (largely attributable to Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon, with their mathematical characterization of the 'bit'). A person is 'informed' (to use the verb in its richest sense) only when the delivery of a curated slice of reality (data) is believed – and is relevant enough, and comprehensible enough, that it alters the receiver’s understanding. The person who transmits it can’t insist, 'It’s information!'. The moment and the process of becoming information occur at the other end of the line.

Finally, information only becomes intelligence (in the sense of an “intelligence community” such as the so-called Five Eyes) when an act of information (remember, that’s a verb) is focused into the possible actions of decision-makers. Aspiring to produce intelligence, we may begin with the collection of what we hope to deliver as data, but much of the potential value of that data must be added to the mere flows of facts. Much of the impact of intelligence depends on thoughtful presentation, and not merely delivery, of the bits.

Cultures often depend on choice of words, representing fine shades of meaning, in realms where other cultures might grasp only one general idea. It’s not merely urban legend, for example, to say that the indigenous peoples of Arctic regions have dozens of words for what a culture in a more temperate clime might just call 'snow' or 'ice'. Anthropologists found, in one case, that, “the number of nouns, verbs and adjectives denoting snow, ice, freezing, and melting may easily amount to 1,000 lexemes.” (While we’re at it, an academic culture that makes a distinction between 'word' and 'lexeme' is another example of language specificity reflecting a culture’s concerns.)

People who come to this website may not need to differentiate among dozens of varieties of snow, but they are probably paid to do one or more of the activities of detection, collection, curation, transmission, and translation-to-action of signals and of representations of what we hope is reality.

Much of the value of our work is determined by how we do these things – and much of the opportunity to grow that value is not a matter of mere volume, or even accuracy or timeliness of what we share. If we’re not enabling better decisions, it’s not intelligence, and that’s why proud claims of being 'data-driven' ought to invite a determination not to stop there.

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