The Pony

You’ve probably heard the old joke about the kid and the pile of horse manure.  There are many variants, but the basic story is that a kid is digging through a huge pile of horse manure.  When he is asked why his response is “with this much manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.”  It’s a story a use to help clients understand the nature of data.  Any of us who are in business see more and more of it each day.  In fact, we’re probably setting up systems to provide more of it to us as well.  The unfortunate truth is that most of it is…well…manure.

a Shetland Pony. Français : Un poné (Shetland).

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re after the pony, or at least we should be.  The pony is the actionable insights that are contained within the data and not the accumulation of data itself,  It does take a lot of digging, and that digging can begin only after we set up systems to gather and to organize the flood of data.  Knowing that website traffic grew as measured by session count tells you very little.  Understanding how it grew or if that growth was because a bunch of referrer spammers hit it gives you actionable information (update the spam filters!). Knowing that your store sales were up 5% without understanding that you’ve lost market share can cause you to think that you’re doing well when in fact you’re losing ground.

Say “so what” to yourself a lot.  If you can’t explain why a piece of data is meaningful, you need to discard it because it’s the manure surrounding the pony inside.  If you can’t put something into a broader context, push to do so. If you can’t determine a course of action based on a particular nugget of information, ignore it and keep digging until you get to the pony.  Make sense?

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