Peter BigelowAsk only for what you need for practical decision-making.

Not a day goes by that I am not asked, or demanded, to provide volumes of data on what appear to be trivial things. Between DFARS flow-downs, NIST protocols, Dodd/Frank requirements and AS/ISO documentation, the verification and validation needs have reached hyper levels. But as time spent providing these data grows exponentially, I keep returning to two simple questions: Does the requester really know what they need? And is the information provided truly accurate?

We are a product of our experiences. My career commenced in the mid-1970s. Then, I was the “young pup,” the gofer and protegee to more seasoned coworkers. That was the era when businesses were just starting to adopt computers as management tools. The hot new area in every large corporation was the “Management Information Systems” department. They had the sexy new mainframe computers that took up the entire basement, typed code on snazzy keypads, and were able to generate reams of reports containing tons of data.

As low person on the proverbial totem pole, it was usually my responsibility to take one or more of these reports and glean from them some specific piece of information – data – that the seasoned boss needed.  I quickly learned reports can contain a tremendous amount of data but surprisingly little useful information.

Technology has certainly evolved since those days. PCs made it easier to slice and dice larger databases into more specific data. Desktops morphed into laptops, then tablets, and for the moment, smartphones, which contain computing power unimaginable even a decade ago. Despite the phenomenal advancement in hardware and software, however, the quality of data is as suspect as ever.

One of those seasoned guys I worked with, when assigning a project that required scouring one of those massive reports in search of a specific piece of information, would always start by asking, “Do you know what information you need?” This would be followed by, “How will you know if it is accurate?” At first we bright-eyed young folk would answer the same way: an enthusiastic “yes!” followed by a quick “don’t worry, we’ll know!” Our green, idealistic selves truly believed those answers. After many stubbed toes and admonitions to go back and try again, we learned the hard way if you can’t answer those two basic questions, you may find data, but will never have accurate information!

Today it’s no different. People do not need data; they need information. Yes, data provide much of the details – the building blocks – that together provide accurate, focused information. However, data can also be like fog or a decoy, clouding and misdirecting efforts, rather than providing focus, which makes those two questions so much more critical.

When the requests come pouring in, I often wonder if the person requesting the data dump knows what information they really need, or have simply delegated the task to someone who may not know the difference between data and information. This is especially true when the data request is related to regulatory or certification requirements. For example, a request to fill out gobs of paperwork to verify and validate a customer or supplier has a training program for employees, or maybe has an equal opportunity or pro-veteran employment policy. Is a generic, one-size-fits-all questionnaire really needed, or has it been created by someone who does not know what information they need? What is conceived is usually a time-consuming data-rich project that yields tons of facts but is light on usable information. More data may not make a simple answer more useful, accurate or informative. In this case, information, not data, is needed. Instead of asking for data, ask for a “yes” or “no” response to “do you have …?”

And is information is accurate? “More data” doesn’t necessarily mean “more accurate information.” Accurate responses to a poorly worded question can yield accurate but incorrect information. Asking for numbers to quantify how many people in a company were trained may provide quantitative data but might not provide the needed information of how many were successfully trained.

The quest for data has always been tied to the quest for objective, trustworthy evidence. If there is one thing I have learned over the decades, it is data have nothing to do with trust. An honest person can have inaccurate and just plain incorrect data, while less honorable individuals can often manipulate data in very untrustworthy ways. The best way to receive information you can trust is to understand what information you need, not to focus on the volume of data provided.

Ditto, when you focus on seeking only the information you need, it is much easier to discern if the information and supporting data are accurate, or an attempt to confuse.

Data today may be easier to obtain, sort and disseminate but are not necessarily any more accurate or informative. Data are necessary to gain needed information but are not useful in a vacuum. Understanding need, discerning information from trivia, and succinctly presenting accurate information based on enough data to verify or validate are more critical skills than simply being able to manipulate a database.

We all could use a break from mindless data mining and could certainly use more accurate, focused information. Let’s focus on obtaining good, quality information and not on seeking the maximum number of data points.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc. (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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