Big data. Advanced analytics. Data mining.

The words strike fear in people who believe we’re losing our right to privacy. Others see big data as an opportunity to make the world a better place.

Like many contentious issues, the reality probably lies somewhere in between.

What exactly is big data, and how does it relate to leadership development?

With the explosion in electronic communications, we can collect and analyze massive amounts of information about a person from their from Facebook activity, tweets, emails, online shopping habits, and more. (See Trait Prediction Engine.)

The resulting big data is often defined by 4 characteristics: volume, velocity, variety, and veracity.

Here’s how each can apply to leaders:

  • High Volume. By 2020 the amount of digital data produced will exceed 40 zettabytes. That’s equal to 5,200 gigabytes of data for every person on the planet. A leader with broad responsibilities in an organization will likely produce even more than average.
  • High Velocity. Twitter users send out about 100,000 tweets every 60 seconds. How many are from leaders addressing the challenges they face?
  • High Variety. In addition to unstructured data from social media and email, a leader typically generates more structured assessment data such as feedback from employee engagement or pulse surveys.
  • Veracity. Today, big data’s usefulness in leadership development varies. According to IBM Data Hub, one in 3 business leaders doesn’t trust big data to help them make decisions.

Different Types of Data

data Infographic

Of course data by itself tells us little. It’s the analysis by qualified professionals that can show meaningful patterns – helping us understand what’s happening and why.

Let’s consider Twitter, for example. Could you assess a leader’s influence just by looking at the number of times their posts are retweeted?

It may be true that the leader’s messages are having a positive impact on others in the company and how they do their jobs. Another equally likely explanation: these leaders are simply tweeting about topics that interest a lot of people.

By casting a wider net across a leader’s digital footprint – looking at social media, customer comments, feedback surveys, and more – we can expect to get a more accurate assessment of their influence and other competencies.

Medical science is already taking a broader approach to big data and analytics. The company 23andme was created in 2006 to help people understand and benefit from the human genome. Since then. it has collected millions of data points voluntarily from people around the world to improve our understanding of genetically inherited diseases. As new research comes to light, we can learn more about how our genes affect us.

What if organizational leaders participated in similar research?

Massive amounts of leader assessment data could be collected, analyzed, and interpreted to help advance the field of leadership development.

We could, for example, examine the digital footprint of a leader viewed as influential and self-aware by their bosses, peers, and co-workers. This data would be useful in creating social media best practices for leaders.

We can’t escape the fact that big data raises legitimate concerns about privacy. But if the medical community has found a way to make it work, why can’t we?

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