Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Pros and Cons of Choice

This is perhaps not really appropriate as the first substantive post on this blog, given that it's not really about the technology of BI, but thought I'd post it anyway, as I'll forget if I don't do it now. I've been recently getting into some video podcasts from the TED conferences (Technology, Entertainment and Design). One recent episode was a presentation by Malcom Gladwell (author of Tipping Point) whose main theme was the importance of choice - that is, freedom to choose is closely tied to happiness.

Another, more recent episode, was a presentation by Barry Schwartz (author of The Paradox of Choice) whose point was that too much choice can have a number of strongly negative side-effects. In short, too much choice, amongst other things, leads to paralysis and post-decision regret of various kinds.

So why is this relevant to BI? BI systems are developed to help managers make decisions, and by providing them with information, we increase the number of choices available to decision-makers. Schwartz's point, though, would indicate that a naive approach to this is unproductive: simply plugging a manager into a data warehouse isn't going to help them make better decisions. In fact, it may actually make them worse decision makers.

I don't think too many people would disagree that a good BI tool doesn't give managers more information (well, it might, but not as a primary design aim), it helps managers to understand information to be able to make a better decision. BI systems are there to help provide a supportive decision making environment, and do so by adding 'structure' to the decision problem: that is, they help decision makers to focus on important information, while helping to filter out less important (but maybe still relevant) noise. Mark Silver calls this 'decisional guidance'. On the other hand, though, is still the need to allow the decision maker to make a real, free, and often unanticipated, choice.

My point is this: as BI developers, we need to balance the needs of the decision maker to make a free choice, while not overwhelming them with potentially choice-enabling information. BI isn't about building and deploying a data warehouse and an analytic tool suite. It's fundamentally about providing decision support, and sometimes that means restricting choice, rather than enabling it. Getting that balance right, of course, is often easier said than done, and raises all sorts of ethical issues.

Check out the videos, or subscribe to the podcast, at the TED Blog. I suggest watching the Malcolm Gladwell one first, followed by the Barry Schwartz video.

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