“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).
An occasional essay by Bruce Baker, presented to the Center for Integrity in Business
What does it take to get a new company off the ground? Or to bring a new product to market? We all know that new business development requires a certain kind of “right stuff”—an entrepreneurial spirit, if you will—a kind of energy and enthusiasm which aims to do something new and different because it’s worth doing. It takes a certain kind of character and spiritual energy to push past all the obstacles that stand in the way. There seems indeed to be some kind of “right stuff” which is just as important in launching a business as it is in launching a space capsule.
Strength of human spirit is required in such endeavors. In business, we may refer to this strength as “spiritual capital,” an ingredient just as crucial to success as financial capital. We find spiritual capital in people who seem to have the right stuff when it comes to entrepreneurism. This spiritual capital seems to be like art—we know it when we see it, but we have a hard time defining it. But what if we could get better at recognizing it, understanding it, cultivating it and rewarding it? What a benefit that would be for building high-performance businesses with integrity and the “right stuff”! That’s exactly what I hope to help do with my current research project. I’m researching companies where spiritual capital is on display: identifying it, interviewing the entrepreneurs who have it, and analyzing the organizations where it thrives. I can think of nothing more thrilling in my business career than to have been a part of entrepreneurial start-ups in several different places. One of those places (which has become famous for its own special mystique) is Silicon Valley, and that's where my research into this topic will begin.*
California’s Silicon Valley symbolizes the entrepreneurial spirit which has made American business the world’s pace-setter for inventiveness and technological advancements. The success of start-up companies in Silicon Valley can be traced back to the early days of “Bill & Dave’s” garage in Palo Alto, where in 1938 they developed the audio oscillator which launched the company that still bears their names—Hewlett Packard. The prolific productivity of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have followed in their footsteps during the past 70 years has become legendary, and has led to the creation a venture capital industry which leads the world in wealth-creation through entrepreneurial start-ups.
The culture of these entrepreneurial companies deserves to be studied for the sake of the witness it can bring to a theological understanding of human inventiveness and industriousness. How do entrepreneurial companies recognize, enhance and harness the creative talents of the human spirit? What can we learn from their experience about the concept of spiritual capital? To what extent do these companies formulate and communicate an ethos that recognizes and builds upon the source of human dignity found in the imago Dei? These are some of the questions I’ll be pursuing.
In academic terms, the hypothesis to be tested is that there are models of transformational leadership at work here which point to a transcendent concept of human nature. This understanding of human nature transcends other concepts, such as homo economicus, an idea popularized in 20th-century economics based on the idea that human nature can be reduced to utilitarian, conscious decisions to maximize happiness. The flaw in that idea of human nature is that the quintessential humanness of human kind cannot be reduced to economics functions; but rather it has to be understood in a larger context of spirituality expressed in and through relationships with one another and with God.
This research project therefore aims to discover how the goals, aspirations, leadership styles and corporate cultures represented by Silicon Valley companies bear witness to a bigger notion of human nature—that is, to a theological understanding of human nature. By studying the entrepreneurial ethos of representative companies, our hope is to learn practical lessons which managers and entrepreneurs can use to build up and deploy spiritual capital for the sake of their employees, customers and the greater community.
If this sounds interesting, I would love to hear from you. Here’s how you can help: send me an email. Share your ideas with me regarding what “spiritual capital” means to you. Share stories with me, and give me examples of people and companies you know. Perhaps you would even be willing to take part in a personal interview on the topic. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks! And thanks for your support of the Center for Integrity in Business. They occupy a unique and much-needed niche by providing thought leadership in some of the most crucial aspects of business.
* By the way, Seattle is right there on a par with Silicon Valley these days, but I’m going to start my research with the Silicon Valley, which is where a critical mass of the start-up culture seems to have first arisen.
Dr. Bruce Baker is Asst. Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University. His previous work includes founding and leading high-tech companies, and serving as a general manager at Microsoft. The CIB is pleased to sponsor his current research project: Silicon Valley and the Human Spirit: an inquiry into the entrepreneurial ethos of California’s Silicon Valley with lessons for the development of spiritual capital. For further information you may contact Dr. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We all want to grab the attention of someone we hope to impress, and we’re tempted to do just about anything to be noticed. Remember Elle Wood’s pink and scented resume in Legally Blonde? She is not alone; officious employees have tried a myriad of attention grabbing techniques over the decades.
With a new crop of fresh graduates submitting resumes on the open market, Michael Margolis at the 99% suggests in a recent article entitled, “The Resume Is Dead, The Bio is King” that job applicants should reconsider submitting a weighty resume in an effort to impress. Instead, a well-crafted narrative will do a better job of piquing the interest of potential business associates.
On the surface, the reason for the shift in viewpoint seems simple: thumbing through a large stack of resumes can be a daunting and mind-numbing task for potential employers. A captivating bio can break the monotony of an endless sea of self-reported accomplishments, former employers, and schools attended.
Richard Nelson Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute writes, “an employer is going through a whole stack of resumes, and on average he or she is giving each resume about eight seconds of their time… Then that resume goes either into a pile we might call ‘Forgeddit,’ or a pile we might call ‘Bears further investigation’” (73).
The bio, as Margolis suggests, has a greater chance of ending up in the second pile because it helps the employer distinguish who one really is beyond a tedious list of deeds done.
But the bio, apart from offering a release from the monotony of reviewing resumes, has a deeper influence: the human psyche seems predisposed to story. From an early age, we are drawn to the hero or heroine, enraptured by the ensuing conflict or struggle that inevitably comes, and renewed by a character’s victory or hope of redemption. As children, stories ignite our imagination when protagonists battle dragons and slyly outwit venomous villains. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes, “Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children” (53). And we might add, adults, too. We never lose our appetite for a good story.
And herein lies our point: story transforms who we are as human beings. We’re shaped by it, and we shape it. When we tell our story (or attend to the story of another), we wake up and experience more of life. Story, like few other experiences, stirs passions and remembrances of days foregone, and reminds us that pain from failure and disillusionment from broken promises can bring growth. Through story we become more human.
In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller asserts, “I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgement. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants” (59).
Yes, in today’s limping economy a bio might increase your prospects of landing a job, which is good news for the job seekers out there. But maybe you should write your bio with a desire to become more integrated, as well as connected to the world around you. Drafting a resume is safe; penning your story and sharing it with others requires risk and fortitude. In a slowly recovering economy, let’s take time to look inward, outward, and upward. It is these postures of learning and our capacity to intuit self and the larger world that makes one truly desirable in organizational life.
John Terrill is the director of the Center for Integrity in Business.
Donovan Richards is the research assistant for the Center for Integrity in Business.