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Asking the right question

Posted on: Monday 17th of August 2015

Albert Einstein once said that if he had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on it, he would use the first 55 minutes to determine the proper questions to ask.

Thomas J Watson, founder of IBM, said something similar: “the ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer”

Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, went one step further saying: “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.”

Finally, W Edwards Demming, founder of the quality movement, said: “if you do not know how to ask the right questions you discover nothing”.

What is the right question to ask?

In today’s digital age, then, what is the right question to ask?

A common answer is: “How do we maximize the value of data (including personal data)?”

There are two things wrong with this question. First, it assumes that the ‘we’ we’re talking about is a firm or organization – not an individual. Second, it focuses on the value of data itself rather than its value creating potential.

Lots of problems follow. The agenda created by the question ‘how can we [the firm] maximize the value of data?’ sucks companies into ‘god quests’ – the quest to gather ever more data about their customers so that they can know as much as they can about their customers. Which, from the customer’s point of view seems intrusive, unnecessary and creepy.

Second, it leads companies into doing things ‘to’ customers rather than ‘with’ them. ‘Targeting’ is a classic example. Simply doing things to people in ways they have no control over is a great way not to build trusting relationships.

Third, it raises issues of fairness, focusing all attention on what benefits the organization can reap from the collection and use of data and raising questions in consumers’ minds about ‘Hang on, what’s in it for me?’

In the first few decades of the data age we looked at the power and potential of data solely from the point of view of firms. In doing so we asked the wrong question. The result is a perfect storm of collapsing trust, increasing conflict, and growing threat of regulatory lock down.

A shift in perspective

So now let’s tweak the question just a tiny little bit to ask: ‘How to maximize the value of data to both individuals individuals (consumers, customers, citizens) and organisations?’

Immediately, this implies working together – trusted data sharing, relationships. And it requires that both sides benefit. It also makes sure all the benefits of using data still apply – using data to gain new insights, identify new opportunities and make better decisions and to streamline and automate processes thereby driving both growth and reduced costs. But now they apply just as much to helping individuals manage their lives better as to helping firms manage their businesses better.

Most companies are still asking the wrong question, digging themselves deeper into a trust and value mire. But a growing number are broadening their perspective to ask how can we use data to help both individuals and firms achieve their goals? And as they do so a whole new world of opportunity opens up – of new services creating new, previously unreachable dimensions of value.

This is what the control-shift is all about.