Are you on the data driven highway? Is your IT department digging a data lake to store all your big data in support of predictive analytics? Are you thinking about cognitive computing or deep learning? Or maybe you’re a data scientist, the “sexiest job of the 21st century.”

You’re surfing the modern data wave in good company. A recent EMA/9sight survey of 351 respondents found that over 60 percent had already adopted a data-driven strategy.

Digging deeper

What exactly is different to the 20-year-old topic of business intelligence (BI)? Or its less elegantly named predecessor, data warehousing, dating to a 1988 paper I co-authored? The simple answer is: its impact beyond business—the potential and unintended large-scale societal effects of poor decisions.

"In 30 years, business intelligence has taken us from low-impact business decisions to the real possibility of economic and societal disruption or manipulation. "

Despite its declared intention to support decision making, the focus of BI has been on data and the systems to collect, manipulate and present it. Today, we have vastly more data, in more varieties, being collected from the real world. We’re processing it faster, with better statistical and other algorithms. We’re discovering the novel information contained therein, and compelling insights into real-world behaviors and events. The unproven assertion, however, is that all this data, information and insight translates into superior decisions and better outcomes.

Against status quo

I’ve coined the phrase business unintelligence to challenge the thinking that ever more data causes or even correlates to improved decision making in business or in general. Intelligence implies a level of rationality greater than actually observed in many business decisions.

Indeed, in many aspects of social interaction—and business is primarily a social construct—purely rational decisions may be counter-productive. unIntelligence, I suggest, offers the thought that in addition to information, the magic of good decisions emerges from the complex social and psychological reality of being human in a humane society, a civilized world.

More than just data

The ‘more than just data’ thinking is a necessity in a world where technology continuously records health measures, tracks locations and actions in real time, interprets facial expressions of passersby and more. We’ve started to worry about privacy, but a range of ethical and societal dilemmas that require more than data, information or even insights lie beneath that one word. Meaning, empathy, experience and intuition are literally at the heart of decisions made for the good of more than the advertising revenue or the bottom line.

The demise of privacy is but one example of the unintended consequences of data-centricity. Data, it’s claimed, is the new oil. The oil driven economy has led to many unforeseen environmental problems. The data driven economy threatens more unintentional woes as proprietary algorithms churn data directly into actions.

Looking ahead

If faced with a choice between mowing down a pedestrian and swerving its passenger into a brick wall, how will Google’s autonomous, data- and algorithm-driven car decide whom to save? Who will the insurance claim against? In the data and algorithm war that is high frequency trading, who or what takes care of the societal impacts?

In 30 years, business intelligence has taken us from low-impact business decisions and strictly bounded consequences to wide-scale surveillance and the real possibility of economic and societal disruption or manipulation. With such high stakes, isn’t it high time we broadened the debate beyond which tools draw the nicer pie charts?