What Effect Might the Rise of Big Data have on Meetings?

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Talk about living the examined life: Nowadays everything we do is being tracked by information-sensing mobile devices, remote-sensing technologies, software logs, cameras, microphones, radio-frequency identification readers, and wireless sensor networks. The pile of data is so high already, and continually growing, that it provides a great opportunity to, as Kenneth Cukier said in The Economist not long ago, “do many things that previously could not be done: spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on. Managed well, the data can be used to unlock new sources of economic value, provide fresh insights into science and hold governments to account.” It also makes it easier to get hacked and have your identity stolen—and we don’t really have a good way to store, slice, and dice the vast volume of all that data.

But it’s here, and we have to learn to store it, use it, and overall make sense of it—Gartner predicts that data will grow by 800 percent in five years, and much of it will come from the Borgian-sounding “Collective” of social media and other communities.

While there is no shortage of dreams for what we can do with Big Data—the McKinsey Global Institute calls it “The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity”—one unintended consequence may very well be your speakers: the subject area experts, the key opinion leaders. Who needs opinions when we have all this lovely, objective data, right? They were necessary when we didn’t have all the facts, when we had to rely on those who had the most experience, which was the closest thing we had to the largest data set, albeit one tinged by personality and individual perspectives.

Think of the premise of the book and movie “Moneyball,” where the Oakland A’s Billy Beane decided to chuck the old system of relying on intuition and experience and took a data-driven route to valuing players—to great success, say Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in their new book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. And it caught on:From then on, statisticians supplanted the scouts as the sport’s savants.”

They predict something similar for the rest of us as well. From an excerpt of the book in Wired:

“This new cadre will rely on correlations without prejudgments and prejudice. To be sure, subject-area experts won’t die out, but their supremacy will ebb. From now on, they must share the podium with the big-data geeks, just as princely causation must share the limelight with humble correlation.”

Will your keynote speakers of the future be the best data-crunchers, the savviest statisticians? I don’t buy it, since data is something that can more effectively be conveyed in print, online, in a webinar, or some other, cheaper way than during a conference. Maybe the substance of what we talk about will be more data-driven, but the whole point of gathering at a meeting is to do what we humans do best, if a lot more messily than data dissecting.

As Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier say in their book:What is greatest about human beings is precisely what the algorithms and silicon chips don’t reveal, what they can’t reveal because it can’t be captured in data. It is not the 'what is,' but the 'what is not': the empty space, the cracks in the sidewalk, the unspoken and the not-yet-thought.”

Those are what gets explored at the best of today's events, and I would hazard a guess that is going to be the main thrust of meetings of the future. It’s that bumping up against new people, new ideas, new ways of doing things, old friends, new concepts, and, yes, what Big Data is telling us about our worlds and businesses, that big mix-master, that exposes us to the not-yet-thought, the next Big Idea. 

The challenge will be how to change how conferences are structured to help increase the chances of that sort of serendipitous creativity happening, so we’re not just hiring more data-driven keynote speakers, but really harnessing the power of what we as humans do best.

Note to self: Stop reading this issue of Wired. It's freaking you out.

P.S. I just read Kare Anderson's post on this bookand it's very thought-provoking!

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