“Big data” refers to information that is too large to be handled by a simple operating system. It can be used to research a broad spectrum of information such as purchases from various businesses, or the online tools we use to store photographs. Big data allows us to view big chunks of information in order to better understand the popular majority. While this benefits those who want to spot trends in the general population, it can underemphasize the importance of individuals.
The nature of decision making in work systems has likely influenced the way we understand and/or utilize big data. In the past, citizens would present requests for services or favors directly to a sovereign, who would grant or deny the petitions. As bureaucracies and communication channels developed, the distance grew between those making the decisions and those affected by them; it became easier for rulers to lose sight of the impact of their decisions. We can imagine that it might be easier to order the back-breaking labor required to build a monument (like a pyramid) when thinking of an abstract “workforce” instead of the faces of individual people. Detachment from the source of data poses similar risks for today’s business leaders, and presents questions about whether or not they are making ethical decisions.
Nonfiction narrative offers one way to personalize big data. By telling a story based on big data, one can re-humanize the people behind the data. For example, imagine a retail vice president reporting on sales across all of its outlets. By personalizing data in the context of narrative, the VP can paint a clearer picture of the customers’ needs and how the company might better serve this vital stakeholder community. However, before one creates a data-driven account, it is imperative to ask a few questions: what is the goal for creating this narrative? Will it be transmitted through advertising, a grassroots movement, social media, etc.? What impact will the nonfiction narrative have on its audience? What is the purpose of transforming the data into a storyline—for the betterment of others or to manipulate the consumer?
If we look to the Christian faith for guidance, we might acknowledge that God is the epitome of big data. God is omniscient and omnipresent, and can make grand proclamations about why, when, and how we live. Instead of dealing with humanity in the abstract, however, God persistently chooses to work through individuals, often men and women who are “average” in many respects. God called a shepherd to lead his people, a refugee girl to save his people from the Persians, and none of Jesus’ disciples were on anyone’s Who’s Who list. So what’s the lesson in all this? God sees the grand view, but engages us one-on-one. Data-driven narrative can honor the same commitments.
Big data offers us an opportunity to understand our world on a macro-level, but if we want to foster change, we have to connect with individuals on a micro-level. Translating numbers into a story that informs and influences, while respecting the people behind the data, can bring about the desired impact in an honorable way.
Kristen Voetmann earned her M.S. at Azusa Pacific University and currently works in the Office of Student Programs at Seattle Pacific University. Her participation in SPU’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology course, Hacking the World of Work, has spurred her growing interest in organizational development (and the role of ethical decision making).