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President's Corner

A bi-weekly column from the Office of the President

A Little Insight Goes a Long Way

Nov. 14, 2005 3:36 PM | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee | Updated: Nov. 17th, 2008 9:27 AM
"Insight" was the title of a speech I heard at a conference last week. Mark Milliron from SAS, a software company, was the speaker. In 15 years, he said, technology has moved from the basement to the board room. Nowadays, small disruptions of technology service almost inevitably have large effects on everyone.

He opened with the idea that we as customers are beginning to expect companies to have insight about us. Earlier, companies analyzed data from the past to help them decide what to do today. Then they became able to analyze the past in order to predict the future, which gave them an even better tool for deciding what to do today. Now, Milliron said, insight initiatives are taking center stage. We have gone from hindsight to foresight to insight.

Technology-based systems can now learn and improve their ability to serve. So, for example, Amazon.com tracks not only what you buy from them but also what you look at without buying and what other people like you are looking at or buying. When you log on again, Amazon is ready with some suggestions for you to consider. When you put an item in your digital shopping cart, it tells you that others who bought that item also bought these other ones. Based on your responses or lack of responses, the system gets to know you better each time and focuses ever more precisely on what you like. The system is gaining insight into your preferences.

Milliron told another amazing story that apparently is true. A huge whale beached itself and died on the coast near a little town in Oregon. Although everyone recognized the event as a tragedy, it gave many, many people an opportunity to see and touch a giant whale up close. Soon, though, it began to smell. A lot. And the town began to wonder how they would get rid of the carcass.

Bury it? No. There was too much risk of the dirt washing away someday, and a casket was a mighty expensive option. Cut it in pieces and haul it to the dump? No one had a hacksaw that size or a great desire to use it that way. Eventually, they decided to pack it with lots of dynamite and blow it up, figuring that the resulting pieces would be so small that they would disappear or serve as food for birds and other animals. At the appointed hour, huge crowds gathered to watch the big event. Boom!! And suddenly there were shrieks and pandemonium as blood, blubber, and bits of bone rained down on the spectators. A large chunk of blubber smashed a car in the parking lot.

The educator who told Milliron this story was making a point: the town had clear, convincing, and immediate evidence that it had made a bad decision. In much of education, such feedback is not available. Deciding not to blow up a whale does not take a lot of insight. But deciding how best to improve education requires hindsight, foresight, and insight. We need ways of knowing each student at least as well as Amazon.com knows each of its customers, and technology can allow us to collect and use data that will inform our insights about how to improve.

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