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Data’s Value is in its Quality, Not its Quantity: A History Lesson from the Soviet Union

by Dave Hannon

June 24, 2011

By Dave Hannon


I have a friend who grew up in the Soviet Union and I’m constantly asking him questions about his childhood and life under Communism. It’s fascinating because most of what he tells me we were never taught in history class here in the U.S. during the Cold War. And there are some intriguing business lessons from his tales about life behind the iron curtain. (Stay with me here).

For example, I grew up with the understanding that religion was “banned” in the Soviet Union. But my friend has told me, it was not actually banned everywhere, although it was very closely tracked and monitored. As people entered a church, he recalled, there would be a government agent writing down all of the names of those who entered the church on that date and time and when they left.

In fact, my friend told me the Soviet government tracked a LOT of things, collecting massive piles of data about its people, their movements, and their lives. It was never clear to the people how this data was used or if it was used, but clearly the government felt the more it tracked the movements of its society, the more control it would have. Sort of the Big Brother version of “what gets measured gets improved” right?

We see the same thing in some businesses today. This point really hit home recently when a CIO told me about a visit he took to one of his company’s plants in a former Soviet country; the amount of data that plant was collecting was above and beyond anything he had ever seen at a location that size. When he sat down and talked with the local managers about why they were collecting 10 times more data than they could ever use, he realized it was basically a cultural hangover from the way companies functioned in the Soviet Union. It was a real “eye-opener” to this CIO, who thought he’d seen everything.  

As you might have guessed, the CIO and his team did a full process mapping and worked with the plant to develop a set of key metrics to run the business, and taught them how to separate useful data from, well, the rest.

The lesson here? Data collection does not equal control. There’s no direct correlation between the amount of data you collect and the success of your “enterprise” be it a manufacturer, a service provider, or a global sociopolitical movement. Data’s value is in its quality, not its quantity. In fact, as the Soviets taught us, collecting too much data is simply not sustainable. It sucks up valuable resources, time, and can distract you from the true pain points that are hiding in the stacks of data.

There's no Big Brother in your company (I hope!), only big data.  Don’t be afraid to question some of the data you’re collecting and ask its owners to prove that it has some real business value. In some cases, there may be untapped value that can be leveraged, simply by asking. And in others, it's excess data to which you can confidently say (say it with me now): do svidaniya!

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