We live in interesting times. Britain voted to leave the European Union. We then saw a reality TV star and real estate developer win the American presidency. These events were clearly momentous in their own right. But, interestingly, they both happened against the predictions of hundreds of pollsters and quantitative political analysts, at the very time when we were trumpeting the progress of and prospects for big data, analytics, and artificial intelligence.
It’s certainly been a chastening time for data-driven forecasters. After all, elections are some of the most studied events in the world, with stable rules, a simple binary outcome, and access to vast amounts of current and historical data. One journalist even declared after the election, “It was the day the data died.”
The juxtaposition of these events with recent progress in analytics and artificial intelligence and increasingly bold claims about how they will change our lives is striking. It seems that data and smart algorithms could generate tremendous value for businesses, whether it’s improving promotional effectiveness and operational efficiency or enabling self-tuning recommendation engines. Yet Brexit and Trump serve to remind us that data and analytics can just as easily lead us astray.
What the political upsets of the past year underscored is that advanced analytics cannot be a substitute for human insight and ingenuity. Those events reinforced some of the ideas that we began to explore in a recent HBR piece about the challenges that businesses must overcome in order to take advantage of smarter algorithms and the need for humans and machines to integrate their unique strengths. We see four main lessons for business leaders.
Put succinctly: it would be a basic mistake to think that technology takes humans out of the equation; rather, it makes human ingenuity more necessary than ever. Man and machines are complements. This means that the business value of algorithms and data can be “unlocked” only by better human-machine integration.
Hannah Arendt thought that the fundamental error of political philosophy since Plato was that it aspired to formulate an “ideal system” with theoretical principles so rationally compelling that they eliminate the messy, unpredictable nature of actual human interactions. We fear that our current approach to technology has fallen into the same trap. Reality—especially as it pertains to human action—is complex and messy. Something will always fall out of the analytical model; something important will always linger outside its scope. Therefore, instead of dogmatic use of data, we need the plurality of perspectives that combining human and machine capabilities makes possible.
In other words, we need to remind ourselves that critical thought still lies upstream of data science. Business leaders are right to integrate data and analytics into their business processes. But human ingenuity is still the key to unlocking the power of technology, even in the coming “Age of Machines.” We believe that this idea should be uplifting for business leaders in reaffirming their value even as technology progresses, providing they sharpen their ability to use it critically.
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