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Big Data Analytics: Good Questions Result in Better Answers

June 10, 2013


We’ve all been in classrooms or meetings when the person in charge (be it a teacher or facilitator) has stated, “There are no dumb questions.” Of course there are! We’ve all seen the lists of supposedly real questions asked by trial lawyers in court; such as: “Now doctor, isn’t it true that when a person dies in his sleep, in most cases he just passes quietly away and doesn’t know anything about it until the next morning?” Comedian Bill Engvall believes that people who ask dumb questions should have to wear a sign that says, “I’m Stupid.” For example, he says: “Last time I had a flat tire, I pulled my truck into one of those side-of-the-road gas stations. The attendant walks out, looks at my truck, looks at me, and I SWEAR he said, ‘Tire go flat?’ I couldn’t resist. I said, ‘Nope. I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me. Here’s your sign.”

Don’t get me wrong. If you don’t know something, you should ask a question. I believe that. But I also believe that you shouldn’t ask dumb questions. Even if a question isn’t a dumb one, there might be a better way to phrase it to obtain a clearer or more creative answer. Asking dumb questions is easy. Asking good questions is a lot harder. World-class researchers achieve the best results because they know how to ask the best questions. If you want big data analytic platforms to provide you with the best actionable intelligence, you need to ensure that the question you want the platform to analyze is framed in the best possible way. Good questions result in better answers.


Vijay Vijayasankar reports that, in the past, “a key principle for a good BI [business intelligence] system design” was discovering “the questions a user would ask the system, and then designing a solution around that.” [“Big Data Solutions – Do Questions Matter?” Vijay’s thoughts on all things big and small, 23 April 2013] While that approach may optimize obtaining “fast and accurate responses to predefined questions,” it “also curtails our ability to change our mind and ask different questions.” Flexibility is important because businesses may discover they are asking the wrong questions or need to tweak their questions if initial results don’t provide all that was desired. Vijayasankar concludes, “I think we should use the big data momentum to make BI systems more intelligent than the rudimentary things it is capable of doing today.”

One of the great things about analytic systems driven by artificial intelligence is that such systems can learn as they go. Over time the system itself may discover interesting questions to explore on its own. To be of the most use, Vijayasankar believes that analytic systems should permit natural language questions to be asked. He writes:

“Some training might be needed for the system and for the users to understand the restrictions – but no user should be constrained with the need to know how things work behind the scenes. A minority of people should have the skills to educate the computer – the rest of us should not be burdened with that. Instead, the computers should be smart enough to tell them answers to what questions users ask.”

Navin Nagiah, President and CEO, DotNetNuke, notes that the world’s most “powerful” companies “are powerful because they have information about you … your background, your likes, your conversations, your actions, your location, your interests, your friends, your travel schedule, your profession, your hobbies, your kids. … It is mind-blowing how much information these companies have about you.” [“In The Age of Big Data – Data Is Power,” Huffington Post Blog, 16 May 2013] I don’t believe the age of big data revises the adage that “knowledge is power.” Data that lies fallow in storage is no more powerful than gasoline that sits unused in an automobile. Power is only achieved when the data (or gasoline) is used to fuel a machine that does something with it. Mai Bruun Poulsen agrees that it is knowledge (and not data) that makes companies powerful. She believes that many “Companies Are Data-Rich and Insight-Poor.” [Mindjumpers, 24 January 2013] “The amount of customer data can be overwhelming,” she writes, “and some companies therefore fail to turn the data into useful information and insight.” Nagiah implies as much. He writes:

“As science and technology evolves and as there is progress in behavioral economics, data mining, psychology and sociology in the connected world, these different fields will come together and companies that have this data will be able to derive intelligence. It is expected that in at least some scenarios they can predict your actions, and perhaps even know more about you, than you do yourself.”

In other words, it is the analysis of data that provides the power — and analysis is driven by questions. Of course, the questions you ask often depend on the position you occupy. Marketers will ask very different questions than factory managers or supply chain professionals. McKinsey & Company director David Court states, “If you look at the advantages people get from using data and analytics — in terms of what they can do in pricing, what they can do in customer care, what they can do in segmentation, what they can do in inventory management — it’s not a little bit of a difference anymore. It’s a significant difference.” [“Putting big data and advanced analytics to work,” McKinsey & Company Insights & Publications, September 2012]


Marketing, of course, is one area where big data analytics is becoming extremely important. Michael Brenner, Vice President of Global Marketing for SAP, believes that questions are particularly important in this area. “Big Data for Marketing,” he writes, is more about the questions than the answers.” [“Big Data For Marketing? It’s All About The Questions,” B2B Marketing Insider, 14 May 2013] He also writes, “[It’s] more about the insights than the technology.” Gary Lockwood calls the ability to ask good questions a “magic performance tool.” [“How to Ask Intelligent Questions With Impact,” BizSuccess] He continues:

“The entire medical profession uses this technique. Educators, business leaders, salespeople, researchers, scientists and even business coaches use this method. … There are thousands of examples to prove that asking good questions is one of the most important success secrets. … Years ago, as a business consultant, I took pride in always having an answer. Now I realize that in our fast-moving, mile-a-minute world, answers have a very short shelf-life. Having the right questions is more important and more valuable.”

Shane Snow agrees with Lockwood. He writes, “Good questions can move your business, organization, or career forward.” [“The One Conversational Tool that Will Make You Better at Absolutely Everything,” Fast Company, 17 December 2012] Snow shouldn’t have limited his headline to “conversations.” Good questions are important in any setting where good answers are sought. The point of this post is that good questions will make your business analysis better in every area. Snow doesn’t assert there are no dumb questions; but, he does believe, “The worst kind of question is the one left unasked.”

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