If you want to develop cutting edge business intelligence skills, you might want to look to a surprising source: philosophers.
If you’re talking about business intelligence, big data or analytics, the temptation is to seek the new. After all, business intelligence software vendors are forever working on the next big thing. And they often succeed: just look at what augmented analytics can do for your business.
But knowing how to use the new tool is only half the story. You need a broader understanding. You need critical thinking that tells you why you’re using the tool, and how your findings fit into the bigger picture. You need to know how to think, not just what to do.
Fortunately, there’s a whole library of books (called “The Great Books”) that teach you how to do just that. And though they might seem less practical than a business degree, or a business intelligence certification, I’m going to argue they’re actually the best, most practical basis your business intelligence skills can get. Why? Because they’re more comprehensive than straightforward business education.
Business intelligence skills and the classics
By “great books,” I also mean “the classics.” Basically, the books you always meant to read, but never had the chance to. Books like Plato’s “Republic,”, or Aristotle’s books about logic (six books, actually, collectively called the “Organon“), or other works of philosophy. Books that are often behind a lot of what we think, and how we think, whether we realize it or not.
But how can dead guys’ dead words keep your business alive? By providing you with better versions of the business intelligence skills that analysts routinely use.
Business intelligence skills aren’t just knowing SQL, Qlik, or Tableau. They’re knowing how to approach data, and fit those pieces of data together into a story or interpretation. The quality of that story or interpretation is what separates good business intelligence skills from great business intelligence skills.
In fact, I’ll suggest that those “useless” great books not only provide you with great business intelligence skills, but can also solve some of the biggest problems plaguing business intelligence, and analytics, today.
Below, I’ll review the books that can help you improve your communications skills, your critical thinking skills, and your ability to deal with the ambiguity and disagreements that can arise in data analysis.
1. The classics improve your communications skills
The ability to communicate is frequently touted as a necessary business intelligence skill.
For one, communications skills are needed to interpret the data. Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t readily give up the truth, either. Communications skills are also necessary to make sure that any business intelligence project or initiative goes successfully.
And since communication goes both ways, what you need is dialectic.
Dialectic’s just a fancy word for dialogue. If you’ve ever hashed out a problem with a friend, congratulations, you’ve used the dialectic method to arrive at truth.
Socrates—moreover his disciple, Plato—raised dialectic to an art form, however. Plato’s books are all dialogues that read more like screenplays than textbooks. The dialogues often have the same goal: digging into big, tough issues by asking the right questions.
Plato, Socrates’ star pupil
And interpreting—and communicating—your data to decision-makers (or figuring out what the data suggests in the first place) is also a big, tough issue that requires you ask the right questions.
According to Gartner analyst Alan Duncan, the ability to ask and answer those questions is what makes a good analyst. “The kind of thing that’s needed is almost a philosopher engineer—someone who can think about a subject, and explore and understand it, both by novel innovation, or by synthesis as a means of creativity,” Duncan says.
A dialectical approach is a great way to come to that sort of synthesis. While an analyst’s position may seem lonely (read, repeat; read, repeat), a dialectical approach (whether with another person or not) is the sort that can help interrogate the “why’s” behind the “what’s” they find in the data.
Nowhere is this more the case than in gathering the information before a business intelligence project starts. Investing in business intelligence requires you speak, in depth, with project stakeholders to determine their needs. How do you make sure you’re speaking to good effect? Adopt the same approach Socrates used to get to the truth: dialectic.
Duncan recommends gathering information about what your analysts need in the form of a dialectic. For example, Duncan recommends you avoid superficial questions like “what information do you want?”
Instead, discuss what your analysts and employees need out of the solution. Ideally, these should be workshops that feature a facilitator who “acts as a conduit to allow the participants to bring their views forward,” much as Socrates does in Plato’s dialogues.
What business intelligence skill philosophy gives you: an ability to think through the implications of a project, or a product’s uses.
What books to check out: Plato’s “Apology” is a good starting point—controversial and exciting, it depicts Socrates’ real-life trial for heresy and, frankly, asking too many questions. “The Phaedrus” also provides great examples of how back-and-forth conversation can result in major revelations.
2. The classics help you think logically
I’m not the first business intelligence writer to say the following: data visualization skills are great, but they’re not everything.
“What I see often are people trained on visualization tools, not analysis,” says Johnny Lee, principal and forensic technology national practice leader at Grant Thornton LLP. “What that begets is an unwarranted trust in the underlying data, and belief that the only ‘analysis’ required for such data is to beautify it.”
The result, Lee notes, is “beautiful but flawed visualizations.”
Data visualization skills shouldn’t eclipse a more important business intelligence skill: logical thinking.
If you want to learn how to think in a logical manner, you need to understand how to use the most important logical tool: the syllogism.
A syllogism is a three-part argument made up of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. It’s usually phrased as: “If A, then B. If B, then C. Therefore, if A, then C.”
And if you want to understand the syllogism, start with its inventor: Aristotle.
That’s right, you can learn a vital business intelligence skill (logical thinking) from the well-to-do son of a doctor who tutored history’s greatest conqueror and almost got murdered by a mob. It seems like an odd place to look for business advice, but everything Aristotle thought, was thought logically. Specifically, look in Aristotle’s “Organon.”
Aristotle looks like a logical thinker here— you wonder what he looked like mad
Data analysis should be about “the ability to unpack a syllogism,” argues Lee. “In the output of most analysis today, all the consumer gets is the answer: C. If you don’t have the expertise, insight, and tools to understand the building blocks—the A and B that got you there— you have a false reliance on the fidelity of those results.”
The most important result of logical thinking? The ability to know why you think what you think. A standout analyst is someone “cognizant of the assumptions they make, turn by turn,” Lee adds, “and this is particularly true in the early stages of analysis when the analyst is normalizing data.”
To explain why you got to the conclusion you did in analyzing data, you need to constantly check your premises. For that, Lee recommends another author: Ayn Rand.
“Check your premises” is a motif throughout Ayn Rand’s classic novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The book focuses on what happens when a group of deeply illogical people who don’t check their premises get into power. As you might guess, the results are bad. What the story presents, however, is an incisive picture of how smart business decisions come from a logical outlook.
What business intelligence skill philosophy gives you: A deep understanding of the “why” behind the interpretation of your data, so your interpretations are sound. In grade school terms, it’s like showing your work on a math assignment. Lee adds, “check your premises, do the work, and be prepared to show your work…do these things, and you’ll become an accomplished analyst.”
What books to check out: Aristotle’s Organon, “Aristotle in 90 Minutes,” Ayn Rand’s “Objectivist Manifesto,” “Atlas Shrugged,” and “The Fountainhead.”
3. The classics help you collaboratively cope with complexity
If you’ve ever worked with business intelligence (or any) analysts, you’ll understand that the same data set can yield widely different opinions. That’s because data itself can seem strangely ambiguous. Another business intelligence skill the classics give you is the ability to handle that ambiguity.
If you were at all awake and/or vaguely conscious during the 2016 presidential election, you’re aware of how subjective data itself can be. Data from nearly every pollster working in politics predicted a landslide for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Professional political analysts were so sure of the data, in fact, that some even called the election in August. Election night, however, showed that the data that claimed Trump had less than a 30% chance of victory turned out to be less than objective.
This ambiguity is why Gartner analyst Frank Buytendijk argues for a radical skepticism of data.
Though business intelligence software programs often promise to provide “a single source of truth,” Buytendijk argues that 1) this isn’t possible, and 2) it isn’t the best way to use your data.
To solve this problem, Buytendijk draws on the American pragmatists in arguing business intelligence analysts should look for a “sufficiently shared observation” from their data, rather than an absolute truth.
The American pragmatists (the big three were Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey) took a different approach to truth than Plato or Aristotle. Where both Greeks defined truth as something absolute, and worked like mad to find it, the pragmatists instead defined truth as a “sufficiently shared observation,” and collaborated like mad to reach it.
The American pragmatists: Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey
Similarly, Buytendijk isn’t interested in finding some absolute truth behind all the data you collect. You can have hundreds of millions of rows in your spreadsheets, and elegant data models built from those millions of rows, but what matters isn’t one perfect, “true” model—it’s finding truth in the collaborative effort of putting multiple models together.
“The whole idea of business intelligence should be finding multiple versions of truth that may not be truthful, but are at least trustworthy,” Buytendijk argues.
In business intelligence marketing-speak, this is called collaboration. The ability to share findings and analysis in a business intelligence software program is a frequent (and justified) selling point for business intelligence software.
But the ability to discuss and annotate findings in a BI program isn’t useful if the BI analysts constantly disagree. That’s where pragmatism’s philosophical take on truth—don’t view it as absolute, view it as the product of multiple, sound opinions—can help your company overcome the logjam.
The pragmatic perspective can be the difference between whether your business intelligence software makes good on its promise of collaboration.
What business intelligence skill philosophy gives you: Compromise and collaboration that help you derive actionable insights out of ambiguous data.
What books to check out: Charles Pierce’s essay “What Pragmatism Is,” William James’ “The Meaning of Truth.”
Business intelligence and the classics
Interested in reading more about business intelligence and the classics? Check out the Capterra post, “The Dead Philosopher’s Guide To Shopping for Business Intelligence Software.”
Want a good tl;dr introduction to philosophers in general? Check out “Action Philosophers,” a profoundly accessible introduction to a lot of the important names in the Western and Eastern Canon.