Data Can’t Lie… or Can It?

As I watch my kids interact on their phones and tablets, I think of how technology has changed over the past 20 years. Over that time business technology has evolved from acting as a glorified “cash register” to today’s ability to be involved in every aspect of our business. We can collect unbelievable volumes of data with every click of a mouse, or every action taken in various software applications. In the blink of an eye, we can put together massive amounts of information to tell us about marketing opportunities, quality control, productivity, purchasing, cash flow, and countless other categories of information that can help us manage our business successfully. Technology that was once only seen in the biggest of companies, is now accessible to every size business in our industry.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase, “data can’t lie.” It’s common to look at computers as impartial machines that simply provide information. There’s no agenda or bias. The computer doesn’t care what answer you’re hoping to get. It just “tells it like it is,” right? My response to that is, “Maybe.”

We risk much if we blindly follow data, thinking it’s incapable of being wrong. A computer only knows what we tell it. People are ultimately in control of what data goes into the computer. We must always consider the entire process that led to the data we’re looking at. How is that information being collected? Who is putting it into the system? Are there opportunities for some data to be left out or simply entered incorrectly? Are there any checks and balances in place to make sure the data going in is accurate and unbiased? Are there pressures or incentives that might lead some people to input incorrect information to meet a certain expectation or goal?

The output of all that data must also be scrutinized. The data we don’t use can be as telling as the data we do use. I’m sure we’ve all seen instances of big business or government “spinning” certain numbers to portray a bright, shiny picture that seems too good to be true. I can guarantee “selective” data use is more common than we’d like to think in all industries, including ours. Nobody knows your business better than you do and if something feels too good to be true, it probably is.

When data is somehow manipulated or simply carelessly handled, it can hide true performance. While that may satisfy short-term needs, it never helps the business or the industry in the long run. Providing a false narrative of business performance hides the things we should be working to improve and destroys a company’s integrity.

On the flip side, data can be a total game-changer. Data that is carefully managed to ensure it is accurate and complete can provide valuable insights, leading to solutions and innovation, resulting in long-term success. When we are honest with ourselves and our customers, we are operating with integrity and I believe there’s nothing more important than that.

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