Eric Snowden, NSA, Big Data & Sourcing and Supply Chain!

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There is a fascinating article in Forbes   by Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn, that examines the current situation with Snowden/NSA from a totally different perspective – and a perspective that we at TMG heartily endorse and those that have been through our Strategic Sourcing & Supply Chain “U” may fondly remember.  You can also find another related piece here: “Who is the First Person You Should Hire (Part Deux) – Lutts and Mipps?”.

The basic premise of the distinguished authors is that the underlying notion that Big Data is going to keep us safer is fundamentally flawed and in fact the reverse might be true.  They cite a number of examples (Pearl Harbor, Cuban Missile Crisis, Iran, 9/11 etc.) to illustrate that lack of data was never the problem in any of those situations – that’s correct, all the data needed was available.  “The right questions and analytical focus matter a lot more than the hard data you have” is probably the money quote in the entire piece.  They go on to extend the argument to the business world by pointing out that the financial industry had all the data it needed to avoid the subprime mess.

You can find us making similar arguments when we discussed Risk Management, when we argued that lack of data was not what prevented us from preventing the tragedies of Katrina or Sandy.  Those of you who have been through the Lutts and Mipps experiential module as part of the Strategic Sourcing/Supply Chain “U” will remember the embarrassment of having more data  than you needed but not being able to solve the challenge because the right questions were not being asked.  The authors contend that “more data does not make you smarter or more prescient…shape of data mountain always embodies questions that were relevant to the past”. 

The appetite to chase more and more data in our  Sourcing and Supply Chain community is voracious.  In fact, we just sent a “decline to respond” letter to an RFP for an existing client who was looking to increase value for their internal customers and become more strategic.  What did they ask us for?  Benchmarking Data – grrrrrr!  And when we pushed back to ask how were they going to use the data to generate incremental value, they indicated that they were only interested in getting price benchmark data and white papers.  We did try to point out to them that a lot of the data that they wanted to pay for was available in the public domain and that a lot of so called white papers were vendor sponsored but they remained unconvinced – they were convinced that if they just had more data – they could magically start adding incremental value and become strategic.  You only need to read the latest reports on magic quadrants touting the latest technology or the best benchmarking data services for confirmation.  Unfortunately, more data actually might be more dangerous.  Using the NSA analogy, the article points out that when you are looking for a needle in a haystack – piling on more hay is actually counterproductive and dangerous. 

While we do not pretend that data and analytics don’t play a critical and huge role in Sourcing and Supply Chain processes, the reliance on more and more data as a panacea is nothing but a placebo.  As the authors conclude, “Big Data is just a big rear-view mirror, not the clear windshield that IT vendors pretend.  It tells us nothing about the future”.  Agree?  Disagree??

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Dalip Raheja
Dalip Raheja is President and CEO of The Mpower Group (TMG). Dalip has over 30 years of experience managing large organizations and change initiatives. He has worked across the spectrums of supply chain management, strategic sourcing, and management consulting.
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6 Comments

  1. Right, depends on quality of the question…or even having a question (as you showed in RFP example). I fear many are investing in latest IT promise to keep up with (potentially foolhardy or distracted Joneses). I understand the push for taking out the, @ times, distracting ,elongated pursuit of causation, but having no hypothesis or biz question guiding your decision making is dangerous. Are people chasing big data taking a huge risk when chasing potentially unstable trends?…methinks so. Sometimes a duck is a duck…sometimes a harbinger of diverse and numerous waterfowl (customers).

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