Management consultants are always on the prowl for good data. After all, it is the stuff that client recommendations are made of. To a cynic, it might seem obvious. The title of this post would be a kin to: “Why chefs love ingredients” or “Why district attorneys like evidence” or “Why gardeners like sunlight.”
Even so, what exactly about the data do consultants love so much?
1. It is where the treasure is buried
Like miners, consultants are paid to uncover something that is often difficult to find. Where a 49er might sift through tons of gravel looking for gold, a consultant sifts through gigabytes or terabytes of data looking for insights. On the surface, an analyst cleaning and filtering data doesn’t look a thing like a miner loading and sorting ore. But if you look closer, they are both in the same laborious, messy, and often frustrating business of rummaging through a mound of crap to find something of value.
2. It is free of politics
Data is objective. It speaks louder than anecdotes and company folklore. When two departments disagree, it is the only way to cut through the bureaucratic white noise and get people on the same page. The client is paying for expertise, critical thinking, and also objectivity. Staying close to the data is the safest route.
In many ways, Google embodies a corporate culture where data is king. Even executives (read: Larry, Sergey, Eric) are eager to drill into the data at meetings. Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of Location Services, gave a talk at Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Speaker Series and explained it best when she said “Data is apolitical.” At Google, if they want to choose between two different features, they do an A/B test to see what the user prefer
3. It is an ugly mess
Data is rarely organized. It is scattered across the organization in different software programs, filing cabinets, desktop computers, and employee’s heads. It is poorly maintained and unclean data grows like a mushroom. It is not uncommon to find 5-6 different spellings of the same customer’s name (e.g., Walmart, Wal-mart, Wallmart).
Gartner says that business intelligence software sale was $12+ billion in 2011, but most will agree that data is usually not that intelligent, nor used in the business. Most pockets of data sit isolated and rarely analyzed until someone invests the sweat equity to piece it together. The uglier the data, the more likely a consultant will be hired to analyze it.
4. It can be beautiful
Data by itself is flat, boring, binary. But sometimes, it can be transformed from a random set of data points into something, well, beautiful. In a very famous TED talk in 2006, Hans Rosling, combined multiple sets of mundane World Bank data into something remarkable. (If you are in a hurry, start at minute 3:00, but definitely watch until the applause at 5:00)
Photo credit: TED, Hans Rosling