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What Can Fleas Teach Us About Big Data Analytics?
May 13, 2016 News

You’ve probably heard that line before, attributed to legendary management theorist Peter Drucker. But, how much of a barrier can corporate culture really be when we’re talking about new analytics processes that can tremendously impact your company once implemented? You’d think that more capacity and cutting-edge techniques would practically sell themselves, given all the hype around the valuable insights they put within reach.

On the contrary, established company norms and standard operating procedures can keep such benefits remarkably ignored and untapped. Corporations tend to be very risk averse, which is fine up to a point. But, when the proverbial corporate culture fails to recognize the new frontiers made possible by analytics and data-driven decision-making, it leaves everyone in the company focusing on perceived risks instead of new possibilities. To see what I mean, allow me to share an analogy about fleas… yes fleas!

Are You Acting Like A Flea?

I saw a curious flea training demonstration on YouTube a while back. I have no idea how scientific this demonstration really is, but it’s fascinating and illustrates a key point: A researcher takes a bunch of live fleas, dumps them in a glass jar and then closes the lid. Fleas, as you may know, are capable of jumping great heights; but with the jar’s lid on, they learn that jumping to their full potential is futile (and probably painful), since they’ll only hit the lid and fall back down.

The fleas learn to jump lower, accepting the boundaries of their environment. Something very interesting happens, however, after the researcher waits a few days and then removes the lid.  The fleas never jump out of the jar! They’ve learned where the lid was, and they remain conditioned to set their sights lower, even though freedom is now perfectly within reach.  Jumping higher to get out of the jar is a smart chance to take, but the fleas are too set in their ways to bother to simply look up and recognize the freedom awaiting.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this analogy. The fleas are used to the status quo; they’ve learned their historical limits (a closed lid) and never bother to reevaluate whether times have changed and perhaps those limits may now be gone (the lid is now open).  The fleas are trapped, in other words, not by real boundaries – but by learned and outdated assumptions.

Analytics Is Very Much About Culture

Corporate culture can make people within a company act a lot like those fleas. We learn where an organization’s boundaries are and how things are done within the company. Then we tend never to challenge those facts again. As a result, outdated assumptions lead us to miss opportunities and chances worth taking that may be sitting right in front of us.

Another thing about those fleas in the video: the scientist claims that their offspring will automatically follow the status quo, a new generation that never jumps high enough to escape from the open jar. Sadly, this part of the analogy holds up as we examine corporate culture and the typical employee onboarding process. New hires tend to get assimilated into the company’s way of thinking, including limitations and constraints. We effectively teach them where the lid is so that they remain stuck in the jar with the rest of us.

My message is that analytics is not just about infrastructure and capacity; it’s also about culture! When shifting to new ways of leveraging data, an organization must encourage employees to rethink and revalidate long-standing assumptions. A few years ago, let’s say, maybe it wasn’t possible to augment transactional sales data with behavioral data insights from social media and web log analysis. Maybe prescriptive analytics weren’t yet good enough for us to anticipate demand for retail items and preposition stock accordingly nationwide for same-day shipping. But, things are different today, and we need to revise corporate culture to accommodate and welcome what used to be impossible or out of reach.

As a lynchpin, we have to recognize the crucial role of data scientists as guides who help colleagues look up every now and then to reevaluate the limits everyone’s used to operating within. Organizations must embrace and welcome that input from analytics professionals, encouraging and even expecting them to play the role of consultant, mentor and coach in a company-wide effort to question and revise assumptions of what’s possible. Otherwise we risk ending up like all those fleas in the jar: stuck for no reason other than outdated assumptions.

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