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Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm Hardcover – March 21, 2017
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"At Ford, we believe the key to creating products and experiences that truly make people's lives better is to deeply understand our customers. Technology alone isn't enough. So we've changed our product development process to focus on the customer experience--and not just the vehicle itself. In Sensemaking, Christian Madsbjerg explains with depth and structure how this is done."―Mark Fields, president and CEO, Ford Motor Company
"This book makes powerful sense. Madsbjerg is a fascinating fellow, philosophically astute and immensely business savvy. Packed with a rich array of concrete examples and thick data, Madsbjerg shows how the problems of the coming century are cultural and how we require the tools of the humanities--especially philosophy--in order to confront them successfully. This is essential reading for anyone in the world of business and everyone with a concern for how human beings make sense of their world. Highly recommended."―Simon Critchley, Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy, The New School
"Having helped some of the world's largest companies transition for the digital age, it's clear to me that those best positioned to win in today's marketplace possess a deep and human understanding of their customers. Companies must master not just big data, but thick data--insight into culture, history, and the social structures underlying human behavior. Sensemaking is the road map for how this works, and it is essential reading for anyone looking to thrive in a world of digital disruption."
―Francisco D'Souza, CEO, Cognizant
"Almost twenty years ago, I wrote, 'To be qualified to be a chief executive officer, you must be broad-gauged, widely read, and have many diverse interests.' This remains just as true in today's world, where companies have become enthralled with quantitative analysis. Christian Madsbjerg's Sensemaking is a powerful defense of human intelligence to solve problems. Anyone who dreams of leading a company should read it--and heed his wonderfully contrarian advice."
―Jeffrey Fox, bestselling author of How to Become CEO and How to Become a Rainmaker
"Many have decried the widespread conclusion that the humanities have lost relevance, but few have proposed how to respond. Offering neither a rearguard defense of the humanities as we have known them, nor an unrealistic plea to other fields simply to take them seriously, Christian Madsbjerg offers a ringing endorsement of how humanities knowledge is still critically necessary to make sense of the world and its problems. With roots in Aristotle, Sensemaking calls on humanists to reinterpret their contribution while showing others how they cannot do without it. It is a book of the first importance."―Samuel Moyn, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History and Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law and Professor of History, Harvard University
"Producing a mixture of how-to text and trenchant philosophy, Madsbjerg illustrates his formula for problem-solving with rich, captivating anecdotes.... Madsbjerg is no Luddite-he fully understands the value of data generated by algorithms-but he feels certain that one finely tuned human mind can solve problems that are beyond the grasp of emotionless computers."―Kirkus Reviews
"Madsbjerg thinks that if businesses accept pure data as the only truth, they are in danger of losing their ability to understand people. But it is by no means the author's aim to dismiss stem subjects. Through his particular method, his intention is to help companies find the right balance. The best CEOs can read a novel and a spreadsheet."―Financial Times
About the Author
Christian Madsbjerg is a founder of ReD Associates and the Director of its New York office. ReD is a strategy consulting company based in the human sciences and employs anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers. Christian studied philosophy and political science in Copenhagen and London. He lives in New York City.
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"Algorithms can do many things, but they will never actually give a damn."
In an age of Big Data and machine learning, someone should frame that and put it on the wall of every STEM-related department in every college/university in the world.
This is a business book of anti-business ideas. It's not cool, rational corporatism, but a look at why the context of being human trumps many of the number-driven directions our companies, industries, markets, and science are taking us. It's a move away from cold, hard facts and toward that of which we cannot lose sight in our rush toward salvation by data.
You see, there's something about the psyche, the longings, passions, cultures, histories, and soul of each human being and each people group that can't be captured in a number. We can say that the number is correct, but is it true? Truth takes into account a much greater context, and it's this that the author says is why too much trust in surveys and soulless statistics can lead us to lies—or at least a greatly diminished understand of reality.
While the following example is not in the book (which highlights one of the cons we'll get to later), it captures the essential idea of _Sensemaking_.
Director Ken Burns's groundbreaking documentary _The Civil War_ told the essence of the conflict through tender words written in letters to loved ones back home. It framed battles within the lyrics of songs that stirred men's hearts in the heat of combat. It told the little stories of little people caught in a big war. It focused on the humanity lost in that tumult. And it's why _The Civil War_ is considered a masterpiece of filmmaking.
That human context is what author Madsbjerg, founder of ReD Associates, "a strategy consulting consulting company based in the human science and employing anthropologiests, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers," says is missing in too much of today's modern business. The rush is to understand numbers, not people, and the only way to avoid making that mistake is to stop downplaying the need for the liberal arts to inform our number-crunching.
Knowledge of the poems of T.S. Elliot is just as important to good understanding of markets and wise decisionmaking as grokking the industrial wisdom of W. Edwards Deming or the economics of Paul Krugman. Understanding the motivations of Renaissance artists and the foundational thought of Enlightenment philosophers can help us find the context that Big Data can never reveal.
To capture this human context, Madsbjerg proposes Sensemaking, which consists of five principles:
1. Culture—NOT individuals
— Using anthropology and similar social sciences can help us better know how groups of people live, love, grow, and die. Philosophy can help us understand how people think within culture, within the web of humanity.
2. Thick data—NOT just thin data
—Cold, hard facts can get us only so far (thin data). They can't tell us what passions stir us or why, or the buried history of a family or people that masks its motivations (thick data). But the key is in that thick data, and it's what number-crunchers—and the biz execs who love them—tend to miss and therefore fail to take into account when forecasting the wants and needs of real humans.
3. The savannah—NOT the zoo
—Phenomenology looks at human experience and tells us reality is not within the caged structures but out in the wild. Market research on focus groups as seen through one-way mirrors may not tell us how people actually use products or think. Science may believe otherwise, but the lab is not where the buck stops.
4. Creativity—NOT manufacturing
—While inductive and deductive reasoning can tell us something about the world, only abductive reasoning can lead to creative solutions. It's not looking for data as much as it is looking for answers. And those answers may ultimately come about by questioning the supposition that uncovering the facts is the end of the matter.
5. The North Star—NOT the GPS
—Technology fails. Good, ol'-fashioned, time-tested know-how doesn't. When the GPS chokes, you better know how to navigate by the stars. Data may exist, but you need to understand what to do with it before it can help you, and too often leaders don't ask the right questions, instead letting the data ask questions of them. "Sensemaking puts us in touch with where we are headed."
Woven into the core of the book are anecdotes, mini-bios of people who employ sensemaking to arrive at better solutions, and business cases from ReD Associates that show sensemaking applied to create real-world solutions that STEM-bound, Big-Data-driven protocols would otherwise miss.
+ The author gets it right. We tend to rush to whatever is hot, and the old way, especially if it seems less tangible (liberal arts sensibilities) than rational (STEM), gets short shrift—to the detriment of everyone.
+ The five points above are an excellent framework from which to look at the world and its problems in a different, more life-affirming, way
+ Madsbjerg writes with passion in the first half of the book, and readers see how much he's invested in a human-centric understanding of the world that takes into account the soul.
- Like so many books today, this is 80 pages of superb material padded out to 211 pages. Many of the stories don't resonate, there's a few too many personal quotes with no 1:1 connection or applicability, and Madsbjerg's confession that English is not his first language comes through in how the book seems disjointed and meandering after the stellar first half. The little disconnections are patched over with passion, but the passion wanes halfway through, and the cracks begin to show in the book's organization and coherence.
- Madsbjerg makes a great case that many of the best business leaders today have humanities degrees, not STEM-based ones. However, despite examples of how sensemaking applies to real-world needs, he never draws a clear line from how one gets from a degree in sociology or art history to driving direction for a major corporation. Liberal arts, yes, but how to take that into corporate boardrooms for the fresh grad with a philosophy degree?
- Some of the ideas don't seem fully formed. The Creativity chapter needs a rewrite. It's hard to follow, difficult to replicate, and goes in no coherent direction. In the same way, some of the real-world examples feel forced or off-kilter, with better examples surely out there but unshared.
- While the final chapter's story about Randall, the dementia-afflicted schoolteacher, is a great illustration for the need for solutions that Big Data cannot uncover but only a human-to-human connection can, it's not clear how one can afford to pay enough money for that kind of human-to-human care on a widespread scale. Sometimes, even with sensemaking, the solution remains inscrutable—or made by sensemaking to be prohibitively expensive.
In conclusion, the core of _Sensemaking_ is fantastic and a caution we should heed, lest we let Big Data and algorithms strip us of the truth of the human touch. But Madsbjerg makes his case early. By the halfway point, things get snoozy and less coherent. Perhaps a better editor would have helped. This is the perfect example of a sprinter blasting off the starting line only to crawl across the finish of what proved to be the 10,000 meters. So, 5-stars to start and 2-stars to finish. Call it 3-stars, and we're settled. That's the best human, gut-based, liberal-arts-informed answer I can offer.
UPDATE: The book uses Mark Fields, CEO of Ford Motor, as an example of someone who is attuned to Sensemaking and devotes a lot of text to him. Fields was just ousted as CEO. in part for not being attuned to trends. Bad timing for the book, and a sad wake-up call and anti-endorsement.
A solid liberal arts education teaches people how to read critically and write clearly and persuasively. Understanding more about context enables someone to THINK critically and to put things in perspective. This you cannot do if you know no history, and know no social science. By my lights, these are all necessary for creativity....to say nothing of understanding and having empathy for people.
Creativity is not just gimmickry, nor is it valuable because and insofar as it is a path to the big bucks for the business boys. Being able to understand context, being able to read widely and critically, and being able to write clearly and well......these may well not be sufficient for a good life. But I think they are probably necessary for it.
The one line summation of the books would be as follows: Since big data is only about correlation (versus causation), in order to understand (and thereby influence) causation one needs to look beyond data, which requires understanding context, having empathy, and cultivating a deeper insight into human and cultural nuances, all of which benefit from study of humanities versus limiting oneself to scientific subjects only.
The above is a fair point and a valid argument. However, the book could have been much more readable and useful had it tried to balance the two views out versus trying to tilt the scales excessively away from technology.
I found the book's closing line to be its best part: ""What are people for? Algorithms can do many things, but they will never actually give a damn. People are for caring."
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