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Big Data needs a Big Strategy

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We’ve written several times over the years about the deployment of Big Data. One of the key challenges with such tools is the seductive risk of treating the data as a catch-all answer to a question not asked. Zeitgeist in the past worked with a large client in the public sector that understood this pitfall and studiously avoided it by knowing beforehand what Big Data meant to them, and how it could be used to improve its strategy and operations.

Without such forethought, applications of Big Data can be ineffectual, if not outright harmful, as the president of eBay Marketplaces said last year in an interview with McKinsey. Governments around the world – particularly in the West – have been using Big Data for some time now to help identify extremists. The jury is still out for some as to how harmful government digital surveillance can be. The deliberate weakening of virtual systems has its root in the fact that the US government originally classified once-arcane cryptography as a munition, which when licensed abroad was watered down. “The idea of deliberately weakening cryptography in the name of national security has not gone away”, writes The Economist. An article published in The New Yorker earlier this year investigated the NSA’s uses of Big Data – specifically mass surveillance of individuals in the US and beyond over cellphone metadata, social media, etc. – and found it wanting. This appears to be partly because there is no pre-determined strategy for what they want the data to do, other than to figuratively chuck it onto the pile with the rest of the data they have, which at some point might be used. The efficacy of such a practice, according to the article, has been minimal. In all of its surveillance, the article claims there was but a single case “where the NSA’s phone-records program was decisive”. It is perhaps telling that most of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks that have occurred on Western soil since 9/11 have been known to the intelligence community. In other words, the data needed was presented, but there was no strategic oversight for how it should be deployed. It is perhaps an inevitable consequence of too little direction and too much volume. The New Yorker elaborates, below:

“Patrick Skinner, a former C.I.A. case officer who works with the Soufan Group, a security company, told me… ‘We knew about these networks,’ he said, speaking of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Mass surveillance, he continued, ‘gives a false sense of security. It sounds great when you say you’re monitoring every phone call in the United States. You can put that in a PowerPoint. But, actually, you have no idea what’s going on.’

By flooding the system with false positives, big-data approaches to counterterrorism might actually make it harder to identify real terrorists before they act. Two years before the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers alleged to have committed the attack, was assessed by the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. They determined that he was not a threat. This was one of about a thousand assessments that the Boston J.T.T.F. conducted that year, a number that had nearly doubled in the previous two years, according to the Boston F.B.I. As of 2013, the Justice Department has trained nearly three hundred thousand law-enforcement officers in how to file ‘suspicious-activity reports.’ In 2010, a central database held about three thousand of these reports; by 2012 it had grown to almost twenty-eight thousand. ‘The bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle,’ Sensenbrenner told me. Thomas Drake, a former N.S.A. executive and whistle-blower who has become one of the agency’s most vocal critics, told me, ‘If you target everything, there’s no target.’

This last quotation applies to strategy in general. Without anything specific to focus on as a strategic achievement or direction, one shouldn’t expect any improvement in that area.

The Leadership Legend – CEOs, David Petraeus & Marie Antoinette

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Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.

As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.

Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.

Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted the country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of their hands.

CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What these histories tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised in the following ways: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again elsewhere. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.