Green Business: Dodging Big Data’s big problems

Big Data is a big deal. But it’s not the Be All and End All.

Just because you can analyze everything, doesn’t mean you should.

Or that it will help you solve your problem.

Here’s Part 7 of my co-authored series on Sustainability Metrics Pitfalls for

Dodging Big Data’s big problems

Many people are very high on Big Data. Perhaps they are right to be. Like many of the earlier pitfalls, but even more so here, are there things this super-powered use of numbers might be blocking us from seeing? As Big Data lets the forest become more understandable (both metaphorically and literally), will we miss more lessons from the trees?

The increasing emphasis on data, technology and efficiency will not make it any easier to ignore the still commonly downplayed social and equity side of sustainability. But perhaps, if privacy and the other above concerns with Big Data are faced with foresight, creativity and an enhanced sense of fairness, we might find that they actually help us move towards sustainability, surprising the skeptics among us.

And then we might possibly avoid the common fate of earlier breakthrough technologies: one step forward, followed by a half step back — at the least.

Green Links: Great Measurements Blog

Numbers are neutral.

It’s how we interpret and apply them that gets us into trouble.

When metrics go bad, they can cause good projects to go off the rails. Lose sight of their original goals. Worst case, bad metrics inform bad decision making that leads to human fatalities and environmental catastrophes.

As research for the sustainability metrics series I’m writing with Matt Polsky, I keep an eye out for people who think deeply about what, why, and how we measure our impact on the earth. In business particularly.

Well, I’ve got a blog for you.

Management specialist Jonathan Low’s blog: The Low-Down.

I appreciate  how Low marries the science of intangible human behavior with the tangibles of business performance. He talks about how technology, business and public policy interact in ways that get beneath surface appearances.

This post on how measurements can go awry caught my eye:

Measures That Mislead: False Efficiencies and the False Hopes They Beget

In this post, Low touches on the balance between private and public sector responsibility for getting a nation’s business done. Who’s best at what jobs, and why? How is success measured? Who benefits, and in what ways? Interesting stuff.

Low included a  New York Times economics article I’d missed by Eduardo Porter on this issue. Porter’s article examines BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster as a case study of privatization gone wrong.

When Public Outperforms Private in Services

BP’s bumpy ride is recorded in “The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office,” a compelling new book by Ray Fisman, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Tim Sullivan, the editorial director of Harvard Business Review Press. “The Org” aims to explain why organizations — be they private companies or government agencies — work the way they do.

One of the authors’ chief insights is that every organization faces trade-offs — inherent conflicts between competing objectives. The challenge is to manage them. This is way more difficult than it sounds.

Those difficulties include deciding what gets measured. Because what gets measured, gets managed.

When profits count more than safety, for instance, the results can be disastrous for the public.

On the flip side, companies that strive for a balance between financial gains, social responsibility and environmental stewardship have the opportunity to do well in both the public and private spheres.