The Way of Tech Lemmings


The philosopher Seneca was once the wealthiest man on earth. So much so that the Emperor of Rome felt threatened and ordered Seneca to commit suicide – which he did after a few technical hitches. And because contemporary people tend to listen to the nonsense that comes from the mouths of the wealthy, Seneca should qualify as a voice to be listened to. Although it has to be said that most wealthy people are certainly not philosophers and will not be remembered a thousand years from now – or remembered at all.

Seneca once advised that anyone seriously interested in being happy should look at how the average man lives and do the opposite, since the average man is frequently unhappy. This same principle applies to many areas of life, and not least to the way businesses use information technology. Since large numbers of managers who are responsible for IT budget have very little understanding of the technology, they will usually do what everyone else does – safety in numbers and all that. This is why the IT industry is unique in the way just two or three suppliers can come to dominate a significant technology market. Just look at how Oracle and SAP came to dominate the enterprise applications space, when much superior offerings were available from other suppliers. At one time it was hard to avoid people, possibly with some psychological problem, who would walk up to me and tell me their business had made a strategic decision to use Oracle – or whatever. A completely meaningless statement that maybe compensated for some form of personal inadequacy.

And so today we find business managers investing in ‘big data’ even though they don’t have big data, and perhaps most worrying of all the trend toward visual analytics. Yes – it’s nice to see data displayed in charts, but the current mania represents the final victory of form over content (it all started with PowerPoint) – say whatever you want, it doesn’t have to be true just as long as it looks good. The visual analytics paradigm has so much wrong with it, it’s quite difficult to know where to start. Interpretation is subjective. Only three dimensions can be seen at any one time. The harder you look for something, the more likely you are to find it, and the more likely it is to be wrong. And so on. Read Daniel Kahneman and/or Nassim Taleb if you want to understand more.

Seneca would advise that we look at the whole big data topic with a certain amount of cynicism, and focus more on non-visual forms of analysis. These can analyze dozens of dimensions at the same time (not just 3), and just a smattering of statistics will allow us to add some form of validation to what might otherwise just be random noise dressed up to look good.

Finally I just have to add something on the ‘wisdom of crowds’. Psychologists know that crowds are stupid beasts. If you really want IT to make a difference to your business, then do something different. This however is problematical. It means the people with budget need to understand – and they often don’t. Paul Strassmann studied the correlation between IT spend and business success for many years and found there was none. This was not a popular message, and so he now focuses on issues such as cyber security. His findings underline the fact that a relatively small IT budget, in the hands of people who know what they are doing, can outperform a huge IT budget, in the hands of people who understand almost nothing.