What Last Week’s Nobel Prize Can Teach Us About Data

James Marland

Last week’s Nobel Prize for medicine shows that the body’s own immune system can be activated against malignant tumours. There are parallels to the way companies should activate “dormant” data to protect themselves.

Poor decision-making is rampant in any large organization. This may be for a variety of reasons: silo-ed processes, poor understanding of external markets, lack of investment in data science. But it is usually not through lack of data—the problem is that most of the data in an enterprise is not active; it is dormant.

This year’s Nobel Prize winners, Drs Allison and Honjo, faced a similar challenge. A certain protein acted as a “brake” on cells. If the brake could be turned off, then the immune system could be unleashed to attack the tumour. This discovery has the potential to allow a different type of treatment: Rather than blasting cells with radiation, use the body’s own cells, which have been reactivated.

As we think about decision-making in our own companies, maybe the answer is to activate the previously dormant data rather than zapping with scary and invasive technologies.

Time to take the brakes off

The doctors spent years experimenting with proteins to find the exact way to take the brakes off so that the immune system could get to work. What are the brakes which need to be removed in order to use the data we already have in our enterprises, and how can that be achieved? Are there some common inhibitors which an IT team should be on the lookout for?

Data may be out of date, this is especially true for master data such as customers or suppliers. At a supply chain conference I attended last week, Marc Engel from Unilever expressed how critical master data was in managing a supply chain. “You need those guys, you really do.”

Data may lack context, so other teams don’t see its worth. Maybe the quality teams hold information about supplier factory visits which could be critical to a risk management team.

One other inhibitor might be that data has poor credibility. If people don’t have confidence in data then they won’t be able to trust an algorithm which is based upon it. Take political opinion polls: a fortune is spent gathering them, but the credibility of the result is low. The pollsters claim to have fixed the recent problems, have not been able to prove this, so the confidence in making decisions based on them remains questionable.

So what can we learn from this week’s Nobel Prize announcement? For more than 100 years, scientists have attempted to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer. Now, for the first time, by using this protein to eliminate those brakes, the immune system can be called into action.

Your organization is full of decades’ worth data, but you need to find ways to remove the brakes so the data can get to work and your company can remain healthy.

To read how you can collect and integrate all your data in a secure, unified landscape with SAP HANA Data Management Suite take a look here.

James Marland

About James Marland

James Marland is global vice president, SAP Centre of Excellence for Spend Management. He joined Ariba at the launch of the Ariba Network in 1998 after previously being a solution consultant at SAP America. In addition, he has held the position of director of algorithms at Vendavo, an SAP partner in the area of pricing. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Southampton University. Follow him @JamesMarland.