Is Big Data Really About Data?

Long ago we left gigabytes and terabytes. Already we are pushing the limits of zettabytes — 10 bytes to the 21st power. This is an incomprehensible number.

If that isn’t enough, consider that we’re generating 2 trillion gigabytes every day. At this rate, the world’s database will double by around January 2015. Will there be room for anything but computer farms?

The third interesting point is that 80 percent of the data is unstructured. It is imagery. How do you get your hands around that? In any transformative event, there are many pitfalls as well as opportunities. As society’s old fabrics are stretched, opportunities arise for those who can see them.

What opportunities do you see in talent management and development? True innovation is not about bigger, faster versions of the old vehicle. When there was a perceived need to speed transportation, people didn’t try to breed faster horses. Think about the effects of the great inventions: steam engines, railroads, telegraphs, telephones, radios, televisions, space travel. Every one of them changed the way people thought, lived and worked, and each required new methodologies that in turn spawned new supporting businesses.

Do you remember the dotcom startups of 1999 through 2001 (e.g., eToys, Webvan and Pets.com)? That overhyped experiment had at its core the message that organizational forms and business methods were changing. However, that mentality didn’t really go away; it just didn’t have the tools to come to fruition.

We laugh now at the many failures that self-destructed, but before we move on we need to look over our shoulders, because the e-economy message is still alive and coming back on the wings of more powerful data manipulation and communication tools. We laughed at the idea of buying pet medicine, home furnishings, clothes, groceries, commodities and even automobiles online. Today, Amazon.com has proven the concept and inspired a mass movement in that direction.

So what does the data deluge and e-management mean to talent development? It means an opportunity and a demand for new learning and personal growth methods. This is more than self-directed, computer-based training. Human development in the 21st century must spring from an understanding of how our cultural bases are changing. Social networking is more than electronic gadgets, an emerging patois and new apps every hour. It is a sign that the younger generations think, act, believe, perceive, desire, appreciate and communicate differently than the retiring baby boomers and even Gen X.

I believe the answer lies in expanding the view of life. A very small number of insightful firms, IBM among them, have taken to employing philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists to work alongside many of their traditional operating units. Clearly, marketing and advertising are looking for new messaging models. They need to not only reach prospective buyers through new media, but also need new messages that resonate with the new generation.

The “Money Ball” story is an example of a fundamentally new view of how to build a winning baseball team without money to spend competitively. But the analytics revolution has progressed since the Oakland A’s succeeded with this concept. A recent cover story in The Atlantic magazine on big data at work notes that A’s General Manager Billy Beane has gone back to looking for hard-to-measure traits of players that only scouts can discover. Not that Beane is ignoring the numbers, but since everyone has the numbers, the differentiator is the human character.

In fact, there is a growing resurgence of old notions of the whole human being. The Theory X management model that says people are only motivated by money and must be closely supervised was proven wrong by Fred Herzberg in the 1960s. It has taken 50 years for management to understand it.

The good news is that more companies are recognizing that treating people as functional human beings pays off. Clearly, people can work effectively at home without line-of-sight supervision. Many managers are building teams with people they have never met and will never meet.

How do you develop managers and professionals to operate in that world? It will take more than a new training program.

Jac Fitz-enz is founder of the Human Capital Source. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.