Harnessing the power of data requires a human touch

James Pike, Added Value Australia’s managing director/practicing polymath, explains why businesses need polymaths to leverage value from data.


Not that I was a brilliant scientist at school, but I do remember we were taught that when one atom of oxygen joins together with two atoms of hydrogen, then water is formed. For me, data points are like atoms; they spin around happily until the right connections are made and something magical occurs.

Making the right connections in business is critical. It’s where opportunities and growth lies, and it’s where the ‘magic’ is.

With more data available than ever before, it should follow that we’re making more connections as well.

But many clients feel like they are drowning in data – it almost stifles them. We find that too often businesses have multiple data sources focused on the same sort of information, increasing the potential for muddied waters. And whilst data will become more organised, with advances in technology, the strongest business will have something else that will keep them in front.

They will have a different business brain and culture. They will be more polymathic than the rest.


What is a polymath?

Polymaths are people whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to specific problems.  Robert Twigger, the British Poet, writes about a journey in Egypt’s Western desert; when his tyre got punctured, the Bedouin men used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from the remaining tyres to inflate the fourth.

It was the cook who suggested the idea; perhaps he was used to stretching food portions further. He had looked the resources at hand, his data sources, and made the right connections to solve the problem. A fabulous example of polymathic thinking.

True polymaths have no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is at hand.  How many cooks do you have in your business?

Our business age reveres the specialist, the expert, the Monomath. Indeed, most businesses have units or departments where seniority is determined by the level of functional skill. This can leave businesses short when it comes to making the right data connections. Polymaths are brilliant at what they do, but are incredibly flexible and agile in their thinking and thrive in the diversity. It’s this latter skill that will become increasingly important in the World of multiple data sources.


How do you know you have polymaths?

They feel like a detective, a psychologist, and a seer rolled into one. They’re Sherlock Holmes looking at behavioural data: what do people actually do, search, watch, buy versus what they say. They’re Freud, combining behavioural data with motivational data: qualitative research, neuroscience, needs mapping.

They’re Anna Wintour, seeing past today and having both eyes on trends: the cultural zeitgeist, societal changes. This enables them to examine and create context around the data. They can illuminate the opportunities that lie between ‘what’s happening today’ and the ‘motivations of tomorrow’, this is the connection that gives business the ‘what tomorrow’.

When businesses have a polymathic culture, data becomes, not a straightjacket, but a limitless resource, a palette to create from, to improvise and explore with.

Data in the hands of a Polymath becomes H20, the business never drowns in it, it surfs it.

James Pike
BY James Pike ON 3 March 2015