An Evolutionary Approach

By | November 25, 2014

HybridSpeciesWhile my recent observation that Data Is Eating Us may have come off as tongue-in-cheek, the reality behind it is no joke. Most people aren’t (yet) transforming their basic bodily functions in order to have more time to analyze data, but there is no question that the fundamental dynamic between human beings and data is changing rapidly. Writing at Forbes, Teradata’s Oliver Ratzesberger explains why:

Most computational neuroscientists estimate that the human brain’s storage capacity is somewhere between 10 and 100 terabytes. Compare that to a worldwide data explosion – already at more than 1.8 trillion gigabytes and doubling every two years – and you begin to understand the analytics “pain points” our industry is grappling with.

For one thing, we spend the majority of our time just sifting through data instead of making decisions. We’re constantly on our heels in reaction mode, putting out fires instead of thinking about the future. And we can’t seem to make decisions fast enough, given that our brains don’t scale the way data can. [Emphasis added.]

Exactly. It is that difference not only in scale but in scalability that has kicked off the entire big data movement / phenomenon / whatever-you-want-to-call-it. After all, what do we mean by “big” data? We mean data that is bigger than…

  1. …we expected.
  2. …we were ready for.
  3. …we know what to do with.

The three (or four, or however many) V’s of big data are all about this core difference. Data volumes expand beyond our storage and handling capacity; data velocity outpaces our ability to respond to it, much less deal with it proactively; data variety confounds not only our existing systems, but our core business processes and the concepts they are built on.

Even if data isn’t eating us, it is outgrowing us. In response, we try to keep up and, if possible, get ahead. A dazzling array of new approaches, new technologies, and new players in the field offer hope, but will they be enough? How do we counter that fundamental difference in scalability?

Oliver’s answer to this, along with Dr. Mohan Sawhney of the Kellogg School of Management, is a new approach called the Sentient Enterprise:

The Sentient Enterprise is an enterprise that can listen to data, conduct analysis and make autonomous decisions at massive scale in real-time. The Sentient Enterprise can listen to data to sense micro-trends. It can act as one organism without being impeded by information silos. It can make autonomous decisions with little or no human intervention. It is always evolving, with emergent intelligence that becomes progressively more sophisticated.

 No, this is not “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.” At least not exactly. It is more along the lines of  ”If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

It’s an evolutionary approach. If the Sentient Enterprise is an organism, it represents a new species formed by the symbiosis of two separate species. Yes, that happens sometimes. But this is  unlike, say,  having two closely related species of  fly producing an exciting new species of  fly,  or the proposed merger of grizzly bears and polar bears that you may have read about. The emergence of the Sentient Enterprise represents a much more fundamental shift. In evolutionary biology, there is a theory called Symbiogenesis, which states that early single-celled organisms merged into more complex cellular structures that eventually allowed for the development of the plants and animals we have today. (Animals incorporated mitochondria, while plants merged with chloroplasts.)

Symbiogenesis is one of the biggest milestones in the history of life. Had it not occurred, all life on earth would pretty much be variants on bacteria.

In the case of the sentient enterprise, the two organisms that are merging are the humans with their non-scalable brains and the whole infrastructure for managing the organization’s data, which includes the data itself. Of course we’re not literally merging with those systems in the same way that we literally have mitochondria embedded in every cell in our bodies (at least not yet), but I think that it is safe to say that when Oliver and Mohan describe the Sentient Enterprise as an organism (or for that matter, when they say that it is sentient), they are engaging in more than just analogy.

As I have noted recently, it is likewise more than just an analogy to say that data is transforming our world and that its reach beyond the realm of the abstract into the physical world is becoming increasingly significant. The Sentient Enterprise could well become one of the focal points for this ongoing (indeed, accelerating) transformation.

For more background, here is Oliver telling the whole Sentient Enterprise story: