Critical Thinking: Analytics is a Tool, Not a Crutch

“We human beings have a very rich history of taking any amount of data, no matter how small, and screwing it up.”

                                                                                                       – Susan Etlinger, industry analyst with Altimeter Group

 The rise of data analytics doesn’t mean decision makers will be absolved of the need to apply their own brainpower to take the right actions where and when needed. If anything, people should apply even greater critical thinking, and constantly question the sources and insights draw from their analytics.

The even more critical need for critical thinking was emphasized by Susan Etlinger in a TED Talk conducted late last year. Her points really hit home, so they are worth surfacing.

We cannot allow ourselves to simply be “passive consumers of data and technology,” she said. “We have to pay as much attention to how we think as how we code. We have to ask questions, and hard questions, to move past counting things to understanding them.”

Context is everything, Etlinger emphasizes. “When it comes to big data and the challenges of interpreting it, size isn’t everything. There’s also the speed at which it moves, and the many varieties of data types, and here are just a few examples: images, text, video, audio. And what unites this disparate types of data is that they’re created by people and they require context.”

This context, or meaning, will not automatically come out of data. “We have a responsibility to spend more time focusing on our critical thinking skills,” she states. “We can process exabytes of data at lightning speed, and we have the potential to make bad decisions far more quickly, efficiently, and with far greater impact than we did in the past…. It means questioning disciplines like demographics. Why? Because they’re based on assumptions about who we all are based on our gender and our age and where we live as opposed to data on what we actually think and do.”

Big data and analytics may be expanding our knowledge, and it’s a journey worth taking. But it’s a journey that needs to be well-managed and thought-through. Consider these actions to help raise the level of critical thinking in your organization as data analytics drives more decision-making:

Understand the data you have and the data you don’t have. There is an abundance of unstructured information – documents, videos, machine-generated data – that has not been captured by existing systems and tools and lays dormant across enterprises that may yield further insights to help decisions. Decision-makers need to understand what pieces may be missing.

Make data analytics accessible and easy to use: Most insights are still bottled up in the top-tier executive suite or within analysts’ workstations. Just as in a democracy the best decisions come from a well-informed populace, the best corporate decisions come about when the workforce has an understanding and buys into the current state of business. Greater access can be accomplished through mobile apps, as well as data visualization tools that enable decision-makers to pull up data that is immediately discernible. The more this is delivered on a self-service basis, the better.

Provide training and direction:  Help employees at all levels understand how to work with data, and how it can improve their jobs and decision-making.

Encourage critical thinking among business users of the data: Along with analytics training, thinking that incorporates human psychology, history, and design thinking needs to be part of the equation. What is the source of the information? Are there other potential sources that will help build a conclusion? And, very importantly: What is the context of this data? Business users need to understand that insights will never come from hitting a command on a computer – they need to come from the humans running the business, augmented with the tools generating data that backs up those decisions.


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  • Jennifer Reid

    Fantastic analysis of the role of data. Data doesn’t tell us anything without context. Critical thinking + context + data is the formula for progress. Admin presses data, but managers and front-line workers – in my case teachers – can provide critical thinking and context.