The Hitchhiker’s Guide to People Analytics

dv028058A science fiction satire from the 1980s provides the ultimate guide for working with Big Data and People Analytics.

Everyone struggles with the potential and the promise of Big Data from time to time, and even the most adept data scientist can get lost in the numbers.  As Geoffrey Garnet, dean of The Wharton School, said during a recent presentation: Big Data can be a bit like a blizzard — you have all the data points (snowflakes) you could ask for, but it can be very difficult to see through.

Which is why I want to give you the secret to understanding Big Data and put you on the path toward a successful People Analytics initiative. Believe it or not, it comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a series of satirical science fiction books written in the 1980s. And this is truly amazing, because author Douglass Adams wrote those books a good 20 years before the Big Data revolution was even conceived.

In the third book of the series, a race of aliens builds a supercomputer called Deep Thought to find the Ultimate Answer to “the great question of life, the universe, and everything.”  The aliens program Deep Thought with all the data in the universe — everything there is to know about everything — and ask it to perform the mother of all Big Data analyses. That is, they ask it to find The Answer.

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Now this may already sound like some of the big data questions you’ve been asked.  “Take all our data and give us the answer.”  But back to the story:

Deep Thought worked on the problem for 7.5 million years (which is quite an investment in a data analytics project). When it gave the descendants of the original programmers the answer, they were quite dismayed to discover that the great answer to life, the universe, and everything was, in fact, 42.

Deep Thought assured the aliens that the answer was correct.  So what went wrong?  How could the answer to everything be 42?

Here’s where the key to understanding Big Data comes in.  Deep Thought patiently explained the reason the answer didn’t make sense: no one knew what question they had actually asked.  The aliens protested, “It was the big question! The great question of life, the universe, and everything!”

“But what actually IS it?” replied the computer.  And then Deep Thought said what I consider to be the most important thing you can know if you want to understand Big Data and People Analytics (paraphrased slightly):

“You have to know what the question actually is in order to know what the answer means.”

Think about how powerful that statement is.  You have to know what the question is.  You have to know WHAT you are asking in order to know how to get a useful answer. If you just start with the data, and start looking for answers, you’re not going to derive anything meaningful (e.g., 42). But if you start by asking the right question, your answer will be in context, and in a format that you can both understand and use.

Those of us involved in the Big Data revolution, with a focus on People Analytics, spend a lot of time working with data and looking for answers. I would challenge everyone — executives, data scientists, stakeholders — to spend just as much time, if not more, ensuring that you are formulating meaningful People Analytics questions. If you don’t start with a meaningful question, there is no way you’ll ever get to a useful answer… even if you have all the data in the universe.

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David Solot

David Solot
Dr. David Solot is VP of client services for Caliper.

David Solot

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