With big data now top of mind for so many, I’m often asked what type of person one must be in order to drive successful data analytics initiatives for their companies. There are many relevant answers, including scientist, statistician, innovator, trend spotter, and business leader. But they all take a backseat to what I believe is the most important answer – philosopher. For at its core, data analysis remains an exercise in asking and answering questions. In other words, an exercise in philosophy.
Perhaps no approach to philosophy is more well-known than the Socratic Method – a form of debate that involves answering questions with questions in order to push for answers that reside further under the surface. The method was developed by the Greek philosopher Socrates in the second half of the fifth century. While the Athenian government eventually condemned Socrates for his teachings, the Socratic method has prevailed throughout history as a tested means to uncover information through questioning. Moreover, the method will often prove an initial hypothesis as false. This is an important benefit that prevents analysis from merely validating what you simply want to be true. Though centuries old, the Socratic method is imperative to the success of your modern big data program.
If you limit a big data program to searching for answers to a set of pre-defined questions, you’ll inevitably only find solutions to surface level problems – and those answers will have a limited shelf life. Make no mistake: Outlining a pre-defined set of specific questions is absolutely the right way to start a big data initiative. But data analysis, when done properly, is about continuous questioning. Applying the Socratic method will not only enrich the answers to your short-term business problems, it will steer you toward the data and insights needed to make better long-term decisions.
To give you an idea of some of the benefits, I’ll use an example of an analysis conducted by a specific sales team here at Dell. We initially set out to uncover the drivers for our most recent record-breaking sales quarter. Our initial analysis revealed that several large-scale deals represented the biggest delta over prior quarters. On the surface, this seemed like a good thing, and we could have stopped there, with the takeaway that we were seeing growth in large-scale deals.
Instead, we kept asking questions. When we started digging deeper – when we started answering questions with questions – we discovered not only what was necessary to create more large deals in the future, but also what we needed to change in our support and services departments in order to ensure that existing customers would continue growing and investing with us. Armed with this knowledge, we were able to take action, rather than just have information.
Another thing to consider: Most organizations invest in data analysis projects as a means of getting a leg up on the competition. But as more companies adopt the use of data analytics as a standard practice, only those that force themselves to dig deeper and question their own hypotheses will derive the types of insights that lead to true market differentiation.
After all, if everyone is doing it, then you need to do it differently in order to get ahead. You have to do it better. The way to do that is by taking on the mindset of a philosopher. Companies that approach data analysis as a continuous search for answers – rather than as a single project that can be boxed up – will be those that benefit the most.
Though Socrates made his impact on the world centuries before big data ever existed, using his namesake method may be as critical (if not more critical) to the success of your analytics projects than any modern tool or technology you can purchase. Who knows, if your project is wildly successful and others learn from you, perhaps your company will create a bust of your likeness too!