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The Technologist's Touch

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June 20, 2013
Technology Insights
Michael Schubach - Michaelschubach@me.com

I am a definite fan of TED Talks. If you’re not listening or watching these gems, you must start. One recent talk that I especially admired was given by Dr. Abraham Verghese. Because Dr. Verghese is a medical doctor, he thought he was speaking about the medical arts but I immediately understood his true trajectory and subject matter: high technology. He related a story about a woman who was rushed to a hospital emergency room in a state of collapse. Once the patient was stabilized, she was given a CAT scan that revealed palpable, visible cancerous breast tumors that had metastasized widely all over her body. It turned out that she had been seen in four or five health care institutions over the previous two years and none had taken note of any mass or tumor. As a teaching physician, Dr. Verghese’s industry-joke-that-isn’t-funny-but-is-actually-pathetic is “if you come to one of our hospitals missing a limb, no one will believe you until they get a CAT scan [or an] MRI...” Was his observation just another barb aimed at the high cost of healthcare?  No, it is Dr. Verghese’s concern that today, while deep in the abundance of cutting-edge technology, the art and science of medical diagnostics is losing the power of the physician’s touch. 

Dr. Verghese believes that there is a quality of judgment, of human insight, that cannot be abdicated in favor of data. The eye, the ear and the brain form a triumvirate of information processing that add a dimension to data that produces a more meaningful result. At least I hope that’s what Dr. Verghese believes, because that’s where I’m headed with his TED talk.

What’s wrong with high technology and the data it delivers?  Very little, actually; it may well be the best weapon in the arsenal but it isn’t without its own flaws and foibles.  Let’s not forget that…

…data now comes in convenient terabyte-sized servings. It’s no wonder that we’re losing the art of selectivity – it’s hard to remember how good Fiji water tastes when it’s being shot at you from a fire hose. We live in a time when more information is available than can be consumed. Sadly, the social side of the equation isn’t keeping up. We pitiful humans are struggling to keep pace with the pace of change because we aren’t really all that adept at evolving. It took us a million years to walk upright so I’m going to guess it’s probably take us at least two or three lost generations before we adapt to the new norm of continual input. Information is becoming like reality TV – there is now so much of it out there that none of it seems worth sitting through. 

…it’s impossible to say when. Because each data-point contains a delicious nugget of truth buried in the soft, chewy goodness of personal interpretation, you can never be satisfied with just one. If one is great, then six are better; if you can’t decide which you liked best, then get more. You keep repeating this process, swearing that each piece of the pie chart will be your last, until you are stunned, bloated and covered in sticky data.  Coming down from a fact rush you feel yourself crashing into apathetic indifference. Who cares what we do? You can support any decision with a hearty “I told you so” regardless of how things actually turn out. Welcome to Analysis Paralysis, the diabetic coma of the Information Age.

…data is only as good as its reader. If you ever doubt that the same data can represent any viewpoint, you need look no further than Washington, D.C., where the same data is employed to support both polar extremes of the American political landscape. Each team is capable of matching the other fact-for-fact, using the same source to reach the opposite conclusion. Assuming that this situation results from the thoughtful review of the information rather than from simple illiteracy, the inescapable conclusion is that data has a chameleon’s chemistry that allows it to turn from red to blue and back again in order to blend into any environment.   

If our technology output is only as good as the consumer, then the best technology outcome is reliable data in the hands of the most sophisticated user. “But where does that leave me?” you must be thinking to yourself right now. “I’m only halfway through my post-graduate degree from MIT… how can I possibly be smart enough to analyze data like a pro?” In response to that great question, I summon Dr. Verghese back to the stage. He asks us to consider the inverse situation – how it would be possible for a highly-trained, highly-qualified physician to examine a patient in the late stages of cancer and not notice a problem?  Is the problem that the feckless patient complained about the wrong symptoms? Or is the problem as simple as Dr. Verghese suspects: that we, so deeply immersed in the statistical output of the Information Age, are failing to take advantage of the most basic analytical tools ever invented? Are we simply forgetting to look up?

I’ve spent a career listening to some very talented technicians review project statistics. The data they present is designed to report accomplishments and to serve as an early warning system that calls out possible delivery delays, failures or cost overruns. (As I have noted in previous articles, these problems are statistical sure-bets in software engineering projects.) Ask the team for an analysis of the data and their training in critical thinking immediately kicks in – they play the grown-up version of “What’s Wrong in This Picture?” They search for anomalies and spreadsheet errors and if they don’t find them then the data is good and the conclusions are sound.  

But ask those same project managers to put aside their power-pointed data and tell you how they feel about the project and you’re likely to get an entirely different set of data-points.  You may begin to hear a story that the data isn’t telling you yet, data that requires a different set of business talents to analyze properly and prepare a prognosis.  Perhaps the appropriate question to ask here is which is the more important factor – reliable data or reasoned business insights?  The correct answer to that question is yes.
Analyzing data is equal parts art and science. Data without insight, intuition and experience is simply a collection of numbers. A review session without meaningful data isn’t so much a business meeting as it is a séance.  What the talented physician’s human perceptions bring to the art of diagnosis is what a good technician’s touch brings to data analysis. It is their insight and experience that help differentiate data-points outside the norm as random outliers or true harbingers of change. By way of an example, you may recall that in 2008, sophisticated financial analysts and unsophisticated politicians were both surprised by the biggest recession and string of bank failures since the Great Depression. Remember all those warning signs that went unnoticed and the alarms bells that didn’t ring?  Most analysts so thoroughly missed the signals that it was like not realizing that the Titanic was going down until the “B” deck flooded and the band got washed overboard. 

Technology is doing its part – the data is out there to be acquired and crunched. The rest is up to us: we must bring our best thinking, feeling selves to the data-fest and remember the Verghese rule: look up.

Michael Schubach is a regular contributor to Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at Michaelschubach@me.com.

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