Why data can make you a coward

I hear a lot about data, a lot about analytics and a lot about the need to be numerate. I don’t hear much about being a free-thinker, being creative or being brave and bold.

I find that peculiar.

If you said to most CEO’s would you rather a creative, free thinking, bold and brave HRD or a data rational, analytical, numerate one? My guess is that most, would opt for the former. But strangely, we don’t talk about these elements. We don’t value them.

Why do we value BIG DATA and not BIG THINKING?

Data is the shroud that weak people, weak thinking uses to wrap a justifying existence around itself. Data is the reason that we can prove any argument that we want.

Data is a wanton whore waiting to please its next master.

Data would have told you not to carry out most of the major innovations that have changed our world. Data did not show that people wanted the internet. Data did not show that microwaves would be popular and (more closer to home) data did not show that erotica would be a best-selling genre in 2012.

Data is promiscuous.

I’m numerically literate, I have good GCSEs in Maths, A-levels in Economics and Accountancy and a degree which included statistics. Believe it or not, I even taught statistics for a couple of years.  I’m not anti numbers, I’m anti dumb people hiding behind numbers.

When someone tells you that you need more data, tell them you need more ideas. Creativity changes the world, data measures what it has done.

Be part of creating history, not measuring it.


  1. Euan Semple · April 7, 2014

    Spot on!

  2. Pingback: Froth Free HR | T Recs
  3. Simon Jones · April 7, 2014

    As one of the people who triggered the debate about HR Numeracy – primarily because I was embarrassed about some of the quite frankly appalling lack of understanding of basic numerical concepts, reflected in some Social Media posts by HR professionals – I think you are missing the point.

    HR people (and I’d argue managers in general) need to be both numerate and creative. It’s not an either/or.

    We need to understand the data so that we can a) see if our creative initiatives are having an impact b) talk to other people in language they understand and can relate to and c) so that we can spot the snake-oil salesmen and women who manipulate and distort data.

    I agree that being over-reliant on the numbers isn’t a good thing. But neither, for many organisations, is a lot of “blue-sky” thinking with no practical outcome

    • Neil · April 7, 2014

      I never miss the point. I make exactly the one I want to, I leave you guys to fill in the detail.

  4. interimity · April 7, 2014

    @ Simon. Spot on. I came rushing over to comment when I read this. Too many ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’ thinkers in HR, who go all crinkly lipped when you ask them to justify their great ideas. Data and creativity should work together in every part of the business.

    • Neil · April 7, 2014

      I’ve not met many creative and innovative thinkers in HR. I don’t know where you think they all are.

  5. rickanderson2 · April 7, 2014

    I was chatting to chatting to Lincoln today Neil and he pointed me towards your blog as I have been been thinking and writing a bit about a similar theme, let’s loosely call it the ethics of big data and analytics. I think there can be a connection between numbers and creativity, specifically for instance in David McCandless’s wonderful book of infographics “Information is Beautiful”, But that is not perhaps the type of “creativity” you are discussing.

    Here are two contrasting uses of data, one worrying, one liberating (see links below if you need more information) .

    First the worrying one, check out the concept of the “Hotel California Effect”, proposed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee among others, who worry that search engine software is becoming so powerful that it second guesses almost every interest in products and services you may have, thus actually reducing your choice, reducing your creativity if you like. Inadvertently you become a coward by not thinking outside the box.

    Second what is surely a power for good, the on line air pollution dashboard in Beijing, China which the government could not hide if it wanted to, and which might require their government to cut back on unregulated industrial expansion.

    Don;t know what the protocol is for a blog to blog link is but here they are!



    Regards Rick

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Thanks for the comment and happy that you’ve posted links on the blog. This is all about debate and thought, not self promotion and these are really relevant.

      • rickanderson2 · May 21, 2014

        Thanks Neil, and I have written another on your “The Business” question . I have often wondered myself what it truly means!

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