Denis McCauley | April 18th 2012 | @MgThinking
In an article written for the May/June issue of Intelligent Life, the columnist Ian Leslie suggested that as athletes, songwriters and other performers amass experience and information, the latter can sometimes get in the way of making good decisions. Citing Bob Dylan and Roger Federer as examples, Leslie argued that learning to “unthink” – relying on one’s instinct and intuition rather than the rational analysis of information – is important for making good decisions, especially when time is of the essence. All the more important, he suggests, in an age when we are saturated with information.
Dylans and Federers most of us are not, but seeking more and better information in order to make decisions is an everyday situation we all find ourselves in, whether standing in an electronics shop or sitting behind an office desk. Sophisticated software tools will increasingly be at our disposal—on our smartphones, tablets and other devices—to help us analyse masses of information in seconds, and enable us to make the right decision. Or so the theory goes.
But there are a couple of dangers here. One is that, for some people, analysis is merely another type of information and will add to the burden of mentally processing it (even if the tool is supposed to do the processing for us). The larger danger is that "Big Data" – shorthand for the phenomenon of massive data flows generated by manifold varieties of media – and the analytics tools being developed to process them, will crowd out the role of intuition and hinder our ability to unthink.
The dilemma probably becomes clearest when talking about management decision-makers in organisations. While all manner of operational business decisions are being automated – such as when and how much product prices should be adjusted – many will always rely on a manager's gut feel. It's difficult to envisage decisions on whether or not to hire someone or contract a new supplier, for example, being made by anything other than human intuition.
This is why I find slightly disturbing a majority opinion in a recent business survey of ours that "management decisions based purely on intuition or experience are increasingly regarded as suspect". Hopefully "purely" is the operative word here, that intution is fine as long as it is supported by the detailed information and sophisticated, machine-generated analysis which Big Data bring to bear.
Even still, if exhaustive information and instant analysis are available for most decisions we have to make, will we lose the ability to unthink?