Review of Sensemaking. (What Makes a Good Analyst? Hint: Not Just Excel.)

An old professor of mine used to quip that, for proof of the permanent income hypothesis, observe how engineering majors often drive nicer cars than philosophy majors. May it be because, he jested, the top five engineering firms are hiring at more competitive salaries than the top five philosophy firms?  

Christian Madsbjerg’s Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm got me wondering why the idea of a philosophy firm is such a joke. He heads a strategic consultancy, ReD Associates, which is staffed by scholars trained in social science, the humanities, and yes, philosophy. 

Philosophy… Not a BS Tornado

Madsbjerg is steeped in philosophy, and his knowledge transforms the organizations he works with. Know anything about Heidegger? Well, get ready to want to learn more. What’s the deal with Descartes? You will see how his influence permeates the Big Data paradigm – and what’s limiting about that. 

As I was reading Madsbjerg’s arguments and perspectives, I kept noticing similarities with the design thinking movement. Madsbjerg addresses this comparison head-on – and he doesn’t like it. He even compares the design thinking process pioneered by firms like IDEO as a “BS tornado” (and it’s uncensored in the book!).

He believes that “design science” is self-contradictory; places like IDEO deal too much abstract for truly humanistic thinking to flourish. (It all goes back to Heidegger vs. Descartes… seriously. Read the book, because this post could easily go dissertation-esque esoteric explaining it all.)

While compelling points, I am disappointed they were developed so late in the book. A large deal of the books’ readers are at least familiar or even active practitioners of the design thinking methodology, and Madjsberg waited too long to claim his unique perspective. 

Will computers give a damn? Do you, anyway?

Another compelling argument that Madjsberg waits too late in the book to develop is that computers do not “give a damn” and will this always fail to care, and thus never empathize, a precondition to design and innovation. “Computers simply do not give a damn; they will never understand that caring is the whole point,” he argues.

True today – but for how long? Forever? I’m not going to predict whether computers will ever “care,” because I’d rather focus on what matters today – do you give a damn? I often come back to Oz du Soleil’s argument that a good analyst is someone who gives a damn, and you can’t teach that. 

So, maybe computers won’t care. But do you? And what is caring?

As an incoming analyst, I was amazed at how much time most professionals spend writing and reading reports and how little time they spend immersed in the “analog world” of their business, their customers, and so forth. 

Excel (and other platforms) is a tool to “automate the boring stuff.” To me, mastery of Excel paradoxically offered a promise to spend less time in Excel.

Maybe that third part should be “Giving a Damn”

I frequently reflect back on Drew Conway’s Data Science Venn Diagram (below). It’s a good model! That lower section, “Substantive Expertise,” is often overlooked – often because it is so hard-to-define and unpredictable. Maybe another way to put it is “Giving a Damn?”

Madjsberg writes:

When you have a perspective—when you actually give a damn—you intuitively sense what’s important and what’s trivial. You can see what connects with what, and you know the data, input, and knowledge that matter. Caring is the connective tissue that makes all these things possible….If you are in the beauty business, you simply can’t make sense of cultural insights regarding beauty ideals if you don’t care about the meaning of beauty products. If you are in the car industry, you have to care about cars and transportation—otherwise, the human phenomenon of driving will not make sense to you.

Do you care about your organization does? If not, do you have something else you care about that factors in professionally? Sure, learning the shiniest new algorithms and reporting tools are fun, and valuable. But giving a damn is not just about the data itself. Because, as computers improve at the “Hacking” and “Stats” bits of the equation, you are increasingly left with “Substantive Expertise” as what you have to offer.


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