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Big Data, Sporks, and Decision Frames

Jan 14

Written by:
1/14/2013 5:50 AM  RssIcon

There are times when big data seems to resemble that big mountain of mashed potatoes formed by “Weird Al” Yankovic in the movie UHF, about which he mutters (mimicking Richard Dreyfuss in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind): “This means something.  This is important.”

Big data analytics sometimes seems like we are digging through all those mashed potatoes with sporks, hoping to simultaneously scoop away all the noise and stab any signals we can find.  (By the way, I also think a spork — part spoon, part fork — is a good metaphor for the part SQL, part NoSQL tool needed for big data analytics, which Neil Raden recently called Forked SQL).

Although it’s occasionally a good idea to engage in a sporking free-for-all with reckless abandon, more often it’s a better idea to start with some sense of what we’re looking to find.  This might allow us to filter out potential noise or irrelevant signal ahead of time.  At the very least, this will frame our analysis so that when we look at the results we will have a sound basis for saying: “This means something.  This is important.”

“At the start of any decision-making process, whether it is perceived as analytical or intuitive,” Jeffrey Ma explained in his book The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big In Business, “is a question or set of questions asked by someone seeking truth.  This is called the decision frame, and it is the first step in the decision-making process.  Getting clarity on the core issue being addressed is the key to making good decisions.”

According to Ma, a decision frame has three interwoven components:

  1. Purpose — What you hope to accomplish.
  2. Scope — What to include or exclude in arriving at the decision.
  3. Perspective — Your point of view in approaching this decision.

“Having the right decision frame,” Ma explained, “is not unlike taking a picture with a zoom camera: What we want to take the picture of is the purpose, what is included in the shot is the scope, and what angle we take the picture from is the perspective.”

Having the right decision frame is essential to whether big data analytics provides meaningful business insight.  What business problem you are trying to solve is the purpose, what data is included in your analysis is the scope, and what drives your organization’s decision making is the perspective.

In other words, the best way to approach big data is to make sure you frame before you spork.

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