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The modern day fortune teller: Creating meaning from data

silhouette of man standing in front of stars

Think how much better the soothsayers would have been if they had had access to datasets and the internet.

In a nutshell

  1. With the abundance of data at our fingertips, we need people who can make sense of the world – human behaviour, motivational drivers, behavioural influences and decision making.
  2. The new breed of meaning maker can read the signs in unstructured data with a human-centred qualitative mindset. 
  3. Organisations need to be creative, to find unexpected connections, new pathways between the dots and unique patterns. They need ideas to help them grow, and this is the role of the qualitative mindset.

The need for people who can make sense of the world hasn’t gone away, yet our belief in charlatans has. With access to data, global information at our fingertips, AI that can match and correlate and learn the patterns that are inherent in the data, we can now be more confident that we are relying on fact not fiction. In the face of this, even some religions have taken a more philosophical approach to belief systems, less ‘factually’ historically based and more ideology based.

But with all of this information buzzing around like an over excited bee colony, we need people who can make sense of the world. Perhaps not soothsayers, but meaning makers. And what they are making sense of is human behaviour, motivational drivers, behavioural influences and decision making.

The new breed of thinkers

It doesn’t matter if the source data is unstructured – social media, observation, open-ended interviews, hanging out with groups of friends, or co-creation labs. Nor does it matter if it is structured data sets that have revealed patterns or clusters. It still needs someone to navigate, interpret and make meaning of the information. Yes, it needs incisive storytellers too, but before you have a story you have to have the ideas.

The need is to understand people and to speak human. Humans speak in stories – they weave together strands and find the human patterns in the data no matter what type of data it is. Creativity is often defined as being about making connections – not just joining the visible dots but making original links that create a competitive edge.

The new breed of meaning maker can read the signs (not the throw of a handful of rabbit bones, but the real signs that exist all around us). Discourse analysis of the language used in organisations and in their copy, semiotic analysis of the visual images on packs and in ads, and in social media there are signs that help make meaning out of the social and cultural currents swirling around us.

"Where a quantitative mindset sees tables and bar charts, a human-centred qualitative mindset sees stories of human lives in all their messiness and complexity."

These people love data sets. Where a quantitative mindset sees tables and bar charts, a human-centred qualitiative mindset sees stories of human lives in all their messiness and complexity.

They see the value of unstructured data gathering, ethnography, co-creation and sourcing cultural signals, sharing ideas with leaders in ecoteric fields and making sense of this with models of human behaviour and frameworks that translate into action.

They are a rare but growing breed – they are curious and widely read, in touch and on code, and thrilled by the new dimension that data analytics can deliver to them – more fuel to stoke the furnace of the understanding of people’s lives.

A qualitative mindset is a growth mindset

At TRA we invest in overseas research trips to ensure we have access to the most leading edge and robust thinking and practice. The ESOMAR Fusion conference at the end of last year, which I attended, delivered an inspiring series of case studies that showcased what can be achieved with a data agnostic qualitative mindset, some very smart data scientists and ambitious clients who want to find competitive advantage.

The term ‘qualitative’ itself creates much debate as it has connotations of group discussion and face-to-face facilitation skills. But the qualitative mindset that is adding value to multiple data sources utilises that craft while also demanding a broader set of skills that require them to work alongside data analysts and to employ specialist skills around cultural strategy and signal tracking.

Time and time again a qualitative mindset was uttered in the same breath as a growth mindset. A growth mindset is a frame of mind – a belief system – we adopt to process incoming information, so it’s not surprising these two things are aligned.

However I would add two other skills to this set: creativity and pattern recognition. Being able to join the dots across disparate data sources is clearly a must-have skill. But it is not a purely mechanistic or System 2 cognitive skill that we need. We also need the courage to be creative, to find unexpected connections, new pathways between the dots and unique patterns. In short, to have big ideas. Organisations need ideas not data to help them grow – the qualitative mindset’s time has come.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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