By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally for Fast Company)

Big data is undoubtedly useful, but it takes human analysis to figure out how to understand what it is we “know,” and how to take action on it.

A recent USA TODAY piece by Chuck Raasch about Rick Smolan’s new book, The Human Face of Big Data, looks at how humanity is impacted by the unparalleled ways we can now collect, analyze, and use data. Perhaps what struck me most was a phrase used by both the article title and Smolan, likening “big data” to a “planetary” or “global” nervous system.Jonathan Harris uses a similar phrase in the article about the Internet in general.)

Without a doubt, more things can be quantified than ever before. The myriad ways that benefits society is only hinted at in Raasch’s article, and I’m sure the same can be said for Smolan’s book. With the wealth of data we can now collect and analyze in increasingly sophisticated ways, we have only scratched the surface as to the vast number of advances we might find.

However, in any era with rapid technological change, it’s easy to start slipping into what has been termed “technological determinism,” to start speaking of the technology as if it drives culture and humanity, rather than thinking of technology as a tool.

“Big data as our global nervous system” presumes everything can be quantified, that culture can be culled down to quantitative data. It supposes the world is infinitely knowable. It posits that context and particularity is only so useful inasmuch as it can be captured by machines. And that’s where the tail starts to wag the dog, to use a cliche.

Big data can’t tell Lexus that my customer survey results were skewed by the fact that the person who sold me my car laid a guilt trip on me to fill out all “excellent” reviews on his survey, lest his pay get docked. Big data can’t tell Target that it might be causing significant strife for a teenage-mom-to-be by giving prenatal coupons to her family. Big data couldn’t tell one major company I worked with that their heralded and highly successful social media presence for job seekers was actually primarily a place people came to only when they’d narrowed their search down to the final few contenders, and that they weren’t connecting with the audiences they sought to reach earlier in the job-hunting process.

Before we’ve completely decided what this new world looks like and what big data is, let’s think long and hard about the things that can’t–and won’t ever be–quantifiable…or, to put it in better terms, what gets “boiled out” when you quantify human communication–the context and humanity that a spreadsheet can’t capture. As I wrote last February, perhaps the answer is that our organizations must become “cyborgs”: combining what can be gathered technologically with the humanity that can help us balance and make sense of what the quantitative can tell us, lest we be lose our humanity and just become robots.

I’m of the staunch belief that unparalleled development of both data and qualitative insight, in combination, can further help transform human understanding, technological advancement, and everyday life. New access to quantitative data gives us unparalleled access to information at a scale we’ve never had before. We can discover patterns in quantitative data we didn’t know existed.

And qualitative insight helps us truly understand the lives of other people, to listen to them in the full context of what they are talking about–to pay attention to the particulars. Human analysis and thinking about what all that qualitative and quantitative data means is what helps us make sense of it all: to empathize with other people, to consider the ethical questions that will inevitably come along with how data is collected and what data tells us, and to perform the sort of qualitative pattern recognition that helps us identify what’s happening in culture, in ways that numbers support but can’t lead (because we have to know what we’re looking for to find it in the numbers). Continuum’s Lara Lee may have said it best in Stephanie Clifford’s New York Times piece back in July: “Data can’t tell you where the world is headed.”

Perhaps, most of all, it will take human analysis to figure out how to understand what it is we “know,” and how to take action on it. As Frank Eliason once told me, senior executives are rarely convinced by numbers that aren’t financial, but a good story that illustrates an issue and creates empathy–with data that backs that story up–is a convincing package.

Grant McCrackenEmily YellinCarol Sanford, the aforementioned Lara Lee and I discussed this issue in-depth at the recent Futures of Entertainment 6 conference at MIT, in a session called “Listening and Empathy: Making Companies More Human”. And coming out of that conference, finding this balance between big data and qualitative insights is a subject a group of us are planning to roll up our sleeves and tackle. I hope you’ll join us.

[Image: Flickr user Bogdan Suditu]

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By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally posted for Fast Company)

A few months back, my friend and longtime colleague Grant McCracken posed a question to Fast Company readers: “Is design thinking dead?”

Grant’s answer to the question? Channeling his best “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (which makes me wonder, what would Austin have been like if he were “The Canadian Rattlesnake”?), Grant offered a resounding, “Hell no!” And I couldn’t agree more.

Grant was responding to a pronouncement Bruce Nussbaum made in a Fast Company article last year that design thinking was “a failed experiment.” In his article, Grant contends that it “might be the wrong time to declare the design-thinking era over,” when companies are “headed for open water and a perfect storm, a great confusion filled with black swans and blindside hits.” Instead, Grant concludes that “design thinking is just getting started. And a good thing, too: we need this approach more than we ever did.”

I agree with Grant’s call. Sure, design thinking has sometimes had its name used in vain, applied too liberally to projects far and wide and executed sloppily in many cases. In other cases, people may have held too closely to what they saw as the tenets of design thinking, opting to keep a purist definition of what is or isn’t design thinking in ways that didn’t allow the concept to adapt and evolve as it entered new realms of the business world. (See, for instance, Lara Lee’s BusinessWeek piece from a few years back about how design thinking must be an element of overall business strategy, not the end-all, be-all.)

To Lara’s point, the most exciting extensions of design thinking move beyond “design thinking” in its most narrow sense. Many of them wouldn’t even necessarily be projects you would expect to come out of the IDEOs and Jump Associates of the world. Instead, I’ve been heartened to see the many hybrid ways in which the tenets behind design thinking have infiltrated other worlds.

For instance, Lee (a Jump Associates alum, and formerly VP of Enthusiast Services for Harley-Davidson) has focused on helping companies understand how to build relationships with their most passionate fans by thinking about the community and the company from the enthusiast’s point-of-view. In Harvard Business Review piece a few years back, Lee and colleague Susan Fournier at Boston University wrote that, “A brand community exists to serve the people in it,” not “to serve the business.” Lee’s work has demonstrated how building community among customers ultimately must focus on serving the customers’ needs and wants, not selling the company to them.

Or look at what David McQuillen did first at Credit Suisse (and now is continuing at OCBC Bank in Singapore) in the realm of customer experience. McQuillen took an experiential approach to getting company employees, all the way up to the C-suite, immersed in how the bank looks from the customer’s perspective. McQuillen drew from the design thinking tenets of empathy and creativity to help bank employees begin to understand things from their customers’ point of view. For instance, he asked employees to spend the day in a wheelchair to better understand life from the perspective of disabled customers. Other times, he had senior executives stand in line at bank branches to understand what their customers went through. Then, he worked with his colleagues to develop pragmatic solutions to the problems they encountered based on what they went through as customers or to understand what new decisions might look like from the customer’s eyes. (See Ian Wylie’s profile of David McQuillen in Fast Company for more.)

I’ve been greatly inspired by the writing and thinking of Carol Sanford, who speaks about the design of businesses that have a commitment to responsibility at their core–primarily by focusing on serving first their customers, then their employees and partners, then the earth, then the community, and finally their shareholders. In her work, Sanford applies the tenets of empathy, creativity, and pragmatic problem-solving to make a strong case that it is completely rational to make responsibility to these stakeholders a core commitment of any organization and employees throughout the company should be immersed in this way of thinking, no matter their division or rank. Rather than leave the design to designers or the strategy to strategists, Sanford argues that such an approach should be seen as simply “the way employees think.”

Certainly, Grant McCracken’s own work can be seen in this light, as having been heavily inspired by some of the tenets of design thinking. McCracken’s call in his last book, Chief Culture Officer, was for companies to hire people whose job it is to listen to what is happening in culture, the patterns taking place in the world around a business that they might be oblivious to, focused as they are only on their products and services or the concerns of their sector. His forthcoming book, Culturematic, focuses on helping people develop a spirit of innovation and pragmatic testing when creating culture–whether that be marketing, entertainment, or any other type of content.

We might even see the current push toward transmedia storytelling in this light. (See this Fast Company piece from my mentor and co-author Henry Jenkins on transmedia storytelling, for instance.) Transmedia storytelling focuses on developing a story that has continuity and which develops over multiple media platforms, with different facets of the story being told through the platforms which best convey that part of the story and which create the best means for the audience to engage with and immerse themselves in the story. For years now, entertainment creators have been experimenting with using this approach to find new ways to tell stories that best serve audiences. And, these days, people like Maurício Mota and Mark Warshaw with The Alchemists are hard at work at helping companies think about how transmedia storytelling leads to them designing stories across all their communication touchpoints which engage, inform, enlighten and connect with readers, rather than focusing on using their communications platforms to tell audiences what they want to say.

None of the projects listed above may be “design thinking” in the narrow box we often confine it to, but they illustrate how a hybrid of this approach has been used to create new ways of thinking in customer service, corporate responsibility and business innovation, marketing, community engagement, and corporate strategy.

Of late, I’ve found design thinking of particular use in my world of communications strategy and public relations. Peppercom’s co-founder Steve Cody was speaking to a group of 75 heads of marketing and communications some months back for the Association of National Advertisers and asked how many of those communications professionals had ever experienced their brand from their customer’s point of view. Three-fourths of the respondents said no, leading us to believe that many of us communicating with an audience on the company’s behalf had become disconnected–or perhaps never actually been connected–with the communication experience of the audiences we seek to reach. (See more about the thinking behind this project herehere, and here.)

In response, we partnered with Emily Yellin–whose book Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us was how I first became acquainted with David McQuillen’s work at Credit Suisse. She has both helped Peppercom put this way of thinking at our core and worked with us to develop an offering to help companies start approaching their marketing and communications work by putting themselves in their audience’s shoes–whether that be customers, employees, recruits, or other key groups. (See more about our offering here.)

While I wouldn’t consider myself a trained designer by any means, our approach has been greatly inspired by taking the questions design thinking brings to the table and applying them to corporate communications, public relations, and marketing. As we embark on our launch of our “Audience Experience” work (which officially launched this week), and as I look at the work being done across so many sectors of business strategy as described above, I once again echo Grant’s assessment. “Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No!”

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By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally posted for Fast Company)

I’ve been reading an early draft of Carol Sanford’s new book on moving beyond corporate responsibility, tentatively titled The Responsible BusinessSanford has spent her career helping organizations understand how to serve all stakeholders–not just thinking about same-quarter ROI for shareholders, but instead about all the parties who have invested capital into a business–customers, employees, partners, communities, and even Earth itself. Carol writes about how crucial it is for companies not to think of the community that its employees are part of and where the company conducts business as another group to be messaged to or handled, but rather a source of creativity and inspiration, a sounding board and constructive critic, and–most importantly–a key factor in the initial and ongoing success of a product or service.

Her points were on my mind as I spent the weekend here at home in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I feel a strong kinship not only to The Bluegrass State but particularly to the city, and I have spent some time thinking through why. Beyond my own personal ties to the area, it seems that Bowling Green has developed a strong sense of place, a feeling of energy as Western Kentucky University continues a massive period of growth–a revitalization of the historic downtown area thanks to the efforts of many community partners and a fantastic Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce that has made its new offices a crucial part of the downtown revitalization, earning the distinction of being the American Chamber of Commerce Executives’ Chamber of the Year. (Full disclosure: I worked for the Chamber’s annual magazine each summer while I was an undergraduate at nearby WKU and as a grad student at MIT, because I believed deeply in the city’s unique culture…and because I needed a paid writing gig.)

CorvetteHowever, there’s one large Bowling Green corporate citizen who seems to deeply understand the importance of this sense of place to the point that they have spent the past few decades working with Bowling Green to create a collaborative identity based on their presence in the area. As some of you may know, Bowling Green is the home of the Corvette. The Corvette relocated its production to The Bluegrass State in 1981, after previously having been made in Flint, Michigan, and St. Louis, Missouri. Since that time, the Corvette has become a deep part of Bowling Green’s identity, and the car’s Bowling Green production has become a key element in the production of this General Motors car.

Case in point: in 1994, 13 years after the Corvette plant opened, The National Corvette Museum opened in Bowling Green, not far from the production facilities of the car. The production plant likewise welcomes a significant amount of tourism, hosted on its own site. The plant and museum have become the center to Bowling Green’s regularly hosting Corvette owners who take their cars “back home” to where they were created, culminating in the annual National Corvette Homecoming, an event which started the same year the Corvette relocated to the city three decades ago. The local Corvette Club, Corvettes Limited of Bowling Green, Kentucky, meets each month at the museum, and there is a National Corvette Caravan planned every five years to Bowling Green.

Many of these initiatives were planned by area or national Corvette enthusiasts. Initiatives like the Corvette Museum were projects of passion for people in the community. In the process, however, General Motors has dedicated its resources to supporting these many Bowling Green-area initiatives and to be a contributing member of the area. They have opened their plant to deeply encourage tourism to the area surrounding Corvette culture. And they have made Bowling Green a key part of their corporate development story.

The partnership has run so deep that, when Bowling Green secured a Minor League Baseball team a few years ago, the decision was ultimately made to name the team The Hot Rods, based on how crucial the Corvette is to Bowling Green’s business identity. And, since then, Kentucky has officially named the Corvette its Official State Sports Car. A publicity stunt? Perhaps. But such publicity is based on a deep and long-standing partnership that reflects the reality of how important Bowling Green has become to Corvette culture, and how important the Corvette has become to Bowling Green’s culture.

Just recently, we saw an example of how crucial the deepness of this relationship has been. Over the summer, rumors began to circulate that General Motors was going to relocate Corvette production to Michigan. A Lansing television station picked up this speculation based on comments from the UAW. There was some concern in Bowling Green, and the discussion was covered locally, but the rumors were immediately quashed by General Motors, who said there were some discussions of various car productions at a Michigan plant, but “Corvettes are born in Bowling Green (, and) nothing in the foreseeable future changes that long-time fact,” according to this piece on AutoBlog. The news story seemed not to cause significant concern in Bowling Green, precisely because of how deeply this relationship runs. The GM spokesperson, David Caldwell, also said to The Bowling Green Daily News:

This is a very unique group of people and facility in the sense that they are very valuable to the specialty manufacturing that a great sports car like the Corvette requires. [ . . . ] It’s a specific and unique and highly skilled operation there that obviously has proven to do a very good job for a long time.

In the comments section on AutoBlog, a discussion broke out of why it matters where a car is created. One reader asked what existed in Kentucky that made it any big deal to move the facility. Other readers quickly jumped to answer, posing everything from bourbon to more serious answers, such as the qualified workforce that’s been developed around Corvette development. While skepticism abounded, reader GalaxieSun wrote:

When GM shifted production of Saturn and allowed other cars to be built at Spring Hill, the majority of Saturn loyalists protested, and justifiably so. The rest, as we all know is history. To take Corvette out of Bowling Green would be dramatically worse. You can say what you want about unions, but none of them wants to damage a brand, and in that light the one thing they should consider is how significant the plant at Bowling Green is to the Corvette brand. And yes, it is a brand, unto itself. [ . . . ] Moving production to Lansing wouldn’t signal the end of the vehicle, yes we know that, but it would take a lot of the heart out of the Corvette brand. And getting that back could be next to impossible to accomplish.

Elsewhere, a Corvette fan said things such as that the move “would probably be the dumbest thing that GM has ever done.”

At a time when GM has been in such rough shape as a corporation and when Corvette sales have suffered as well, the iconic status of the Corvette brand and the passion of Corvette enthusiasts remain in place, and the local pride and community development Corvette has generated in the Bowling Green area is a crucial part of that story. Many brands could learn from how this mutually beneficial relationship has developed and how it positively impacts both brands. And, from a Bowling Green perspective, here’s hoping that there aren’t any changes in Corvette or pressures from GM as a whole to forget about the deep equity in Bowling Green and among Corvette enthusiasts that have made the place where Corvettes are developed a fundamental part of the brand’s story.

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