... The subject-area expert, the substantive specialist, will lose some of his or her luster compared with the statistician and data analyst, who are unfettered by the old ways of doing things and let the data speak. This new cadre will rely on correlations without prejudgments and prejudice. To be sure, subject-area experts won’t die out, but their supremacy will ebb. From now on, they must share the podium with the big-data geeks, just as princely causation must share the limelight with humble correlation.
This transforms the way we value knowledge, because we tend to think that people with deep specialization are worth more than generalists — that fortune favors depth.
Yet expertise is like exactitude: appropriate for a small-data world where one never has enough information, or the right information, and thus has to rely on intuition and experience to guide one’s way. In such a world, experience plays a critical role, since it is the long accumulation of latent knowledge — knowledge that one can’t transmit easily or learn from a book, or perhaps even be consciously aware of — that enables one to make smarter decisions.
But when you are stuffed silly with data, you can tap that instead, and to greater effect. Thus those who can analyze big data may see past the superstitions and conventional thinking not because they’re smarter, but because they have the data. (And being outsiders, they are impartial about squabbles within the field that may narrow an expert’s vision to whichever side of a squabble she’s on.) This suggests that what it takes for an employee to be valuable to a company changes. What you need to know changes, whom you need to know changes, and so does what you need to study to prepare for professional life.
Harnessing data is no guarantee of business success but shows what is possible.
The shift to data-driven decisions is profound. Most people base their decisions on a combination of facts and reflection, plus a heavy dose of guesswork. “A riot of subjective visions — feelings in the solar plexus,” in the poet W. H. Auden’s memorable words. Thomas Davenport, a business professor at Babson College in Massachusetts and the author of numerous books on analytics, calls it “the golden gut.” Executives are just sure of themselves from gut instinct, so they go with that. But this is starting to change as managerial decisions are made or at least confirmed by predictive modeling and big-data analysis.
As big data transforms our lives — optimizing, improving, making more efficient, and capturing benefits — what role is left for intuition, faith, uncertainty, and originality? ...
... Big data is not an ice-cold world of algorithms and automatons. What is greatest about human beings is precisely what the algorithms and silicon chips don’t reveal, what they can’t reveal because it can’t be captured in data. It is not the “what is,” but the “what is not”: the empty space, the cracks in the sidewalk, the unspoken and the not-yet-thought. There is an essential role for people, with all our foibles, misperceptions and mistakes, since these traits walk hand in hand with human creativity, instinct, and genius. ...