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TDWI keynoter connects philosophy and analytics

When delving into analytics, TDWI conference keynote speaker Frank Buytendijk suggests that businesses ask themselves three questions: What is real? What is true? What is good?

LAS VEGAS ­­-- Frank Buytendijk dropped a bombshell on attendees at The Data Warehousing Institute’s World Conference on data strategy for the enterprise yesterday morning: A single version of the truth is unattainable, especially in the age of “big data.”

“Because data sets have become so large, you cannot figure out if the answer is correct or incorrect, true or not true,” he said. Instead, businesses will have to rely on trust and collaboration.

Buytendijk, an industry expert and a frequent contributor to BeyeNetwork, delivered the keynote address at the show titled “What is real? What is true? What is good? Questions business analysts should ask.” Answering the three basic questions may mean embracing the outliers, having conversations with employees rather than relying solely on data and weighing ethical and moral questions when analyzing data.

More from Frank Buytendijk

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Find out why ‘Data is Not Reality' sat down with Buytendijk after his keynote address to continue the conversation.

Your keynote address presented the idea of connecting analytics and business intelligence to philosophical thinking and ideas. How did you originally make that connection?

Frank Buytendijk: Two years ago, there was this evening meeting with a couple of BI guys, among them Rick van der Lans, who is also a BeyeNetwork author. He made the statement all of a sudden saying, “in the end, business best practices are nothing else but solutions for yesterday’s problems.” All of a sudden I thought that sounds like a very age of enlightenment style of remark and that got me going. At that moment I was looking for a new topic for a book. As writing is the best form of learning, I thought all of this philosophy stuff is fascinating. I’m going to write a book about it.

Why is looking back at some of these great thinkers so important to business intelligence and analytics today?

Buytendijk:  We think that most of the problems we deal with in business, we either think they’re unique for our business or they’re unique for our time. But if you read the great philosophers, they’ve basically solved every problem that we’re struggling with today. If you want to know about enterprise architecture, you should read Aristotle and forget about Zachman; if you want to know about governance, Plato has been writing about that in a very practical and modern way. Machiavelli you should consult when it’s about power or Sun Tzu when it’s about strategy. Basically, you can stand on the shoulder of giants when you look at the great philosophers, and learn something about what you’re doing today.

The title of your keynote address was “What is true? What is real? What is good? Questions business analysts should ask.” Why should business analysts ask these questions?

Buytendijk:  Because technology is bringing so much innovation by lifting boundaries and lifting constraints. The question in technology is really moving from how we do things, which is the best practices we see today, to what do we actually do with all that power. And those are really elementary philosophical questions. So I think philosophy in IT is really important and becoming of paramount importance these days.

Everyone is talking about the opportunities of big data, but you mentioned some of the challenges. What are some of those challenges?

Buytendijk: When data sets become so big in terms of volume and become so complex in terms of depth, we simply cannot truly understand what is in there anymore and we have to trust them. There’s nothing else we can rely on; we cannot track whether it’s true or not. In fact, you can argue that data sets become like people: You ask questions and they give answers. It’s because you know this person that you think what this person says is true or at least is a little bit useful. I think data sets will start more and more to also have behaviors. And data sets overtime will start to misbehave. In fact, one of my predictions is that one of the hottest jobs in 2020 is going to be data therapists to figure out what went wrong with the data sets.

A chunk of your keynote address was devoted to ‘what is good,’ and that delved into morality and ethics of data analytics. Why is that so important?

Buytendijk: Lots of people think that business is amoral and so is technology. I don’t think that is the case. When technology gives you so much opportunity to analyze everything you could possibly think of, where does it stop? At what moment do you say, ‘this is something I don’t want to know.’ To give you just one example, modern data mining tools can crawl through the data all night and can give you a list of the most important things it found last night. The problem with such technology is that those technologies are answering questions that were never asked. If you think through the ethical consequences of that, those are enormous. And that’s a discussion that most organizations don’t even have today. In my workshops and presentations, there’s lots of examples of that.

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