This a guest blogpost by James Richardson, business analytics strategist, Qlik
I find solace in the many worlds interpretation (MWI) of reality. In layman’s terms, the idea, first proposed by physicist Hugh Everett* in 1957, means that ‘every possible outcome of every event defines or exists in its own “history” or “world”‘. In other words, every time an event happens the universe splits.
Admittedly this is a controversial hypothesis, dividing physicists – some of whom find the idea abhorrent and little more than wishful thinking. But as I’ve said, I find the idea of infinitely branching universes comforting, as it means that in at least one other of these probable multiverses, one of me is a rock star or Olympic gold medalist! It also means that in another universe my parallel self and his parallel wife have a daughter who can talk to us, and who will live an independent life free of disability and difficulty.
So how does this relate to business intelligence (BI)?
When I was at Gartner we used to run an annual survey on the buying drivers of BI – I think the last one was in 2010 – which was consistent year-on-year in finding that the main reason organizations invest in BI is to “speed up and improve decision making”. A decision is an event. As such, in an MWI reality every possible decision outcome runs in parallel, with branching universes created at the point of every decision. If MWI is real it makes what people actually do with BI very different to how it’s usually considered.
Here’s my logic:
1. People use BI as a driver for decisions.
2. Decision events split universes.
3. Therefore BI is a tool for switching between parallel universes.
To push the logic further, if the likely decision outcome is known, BI is a tool for consciously navigating parallel universes. Here lies the problem though. For most business decisions, beyond using rule-of-thumb experience and other heuristics, the likely result of decisions is not known in advance. This came up in a recent Qlik’s survey where 36% of those questioned cited “lack of clear outcome from choices” as an inhibitor to decision making. As such, any decision making, and therefore universe switching, is uncertain, maybe even random in some cases. This problem is why probabilistic methods, and in particular Monte Carlo simulations, become very useful indeed. By calculating the statistical probability of alternatives – and remember the QIX engine supports Monte Carlo methods – the decision can be made and the universes navigated with less uncertainty (but still some uncertainty; we can’t forget the chaotic nature of complex systems, but that’s for another blog post).
So, next time someone asks you what BI system is for, tell them it’s to navigate to a parallel universe. They may think you’re crazy, but at least you’ll have intrigued them and hopefully, made them think about what decisions really do and why they’re so important. Or not…remember if you get it wrong in this universe, you got it right in another.
*For the music fans – Hugh Everett was the father of ‘E’ in the indie band Eels. You can see him present a BBC documentary on his father’s life and work on YouTube.