The Human Data Processor

BLG02x - image - edThe world is constantly changing, and currently maybe even faster than before. This has a major impact on people; requiring changes in roles, skills, and behavior. Reflection is needed on what this means. What was useful in the past may be irrelevant in the future. I also reflect on my own skills and behavior, and try to learn and adapt to changes in my environment. An important insight I had was that the core of what I do is process data. This may seem quite obvious, given that I am a knowledge worker, but this perspective can help with your personal leadership. Let me tell you how.

I will start with a summary of what my work looks like, which is probably very similar to the work of other people. I try to understand a problem and its context and generate solutions. This requires me to ask people questions, listen to them, interpret their response, relate it to my own conceptual model, reason about the impact of what is said, generate follow on questions, and communicate these questions. This is data processing on a small scale—at the level of one-to-one communication. On a bigger scale, what I learn leads to questions that cannot be answered by the person I talk to. I need to think about the data that I need, the sources from which the data can be acquired, and how I will gather the data. This leads to more communication with people, but also to reading all sorts of information in the form of documents. All the data that I have acquired needs to be combined into a coherent story, which is often too big to fit in my brain. So I use office tools to document the data that I have gathered, interpret these documents, put them into a coherent structure, reason about what it all means, and write down the implications and follow on questions. Depending on how you look at this, you may see even more levels of data processing—such as at the level of a task, project, or organizational change.

So how does this data processing perspective of what I do help in making me more effective? If you look at it from an abstract level, you have several phases within the data processing: acquiring the data, interpreting the data, transforming the data, and communicating the result. Each of these phases can be optimized. I can become better at acquiring data by selecting the right data sources, only reading what is relevant, and by improving my listening skills. I can become better at interpreting the data by letting go of my own convictions and emotions, so that they do not generate any noise. I can improve my transformation of the data by using a very structured approach, explicitly relating all the pieces of data to each other and to my conceptual model, and by using structured analysis and reasoning techniques to generate new data. I should also be able to separate the facts from the emotions and incorrect data that I received, since both an objective and subjective perspective are important. I can improve the way I communicate the result by ensuring that it is a coherent story, that I use the vocabulary of the target audience, that I understand the target audience, and ensure that my body language aligns with what I want to communicate. Of course, all these improvements are fictitious. However, if you feel that this perspective is useful, you can translate it to what you think needs to be improved in your way of working. Since there are multiple levels of abstraction, and multiple levels of detail in which you can do this, this can become a process of continuous improvement.

Although this is the first time I make this perspective concrete by writing a blog about it, I feel that it has already helped me. Some of the improvements in the previous paragraph are part of what I have actually learned to become more effective. It also helps me to understand what my strengths are, so that I can articulate them when needed. I think that my strength is that I can perform all the stages of data processing relatively fast, and that my logical reasoning skills are above average. So, data processing is a core and distinctive competence for me. The major areas of improvement that I see for myself are better understanding the role and handling of subjective aspects such as feelings and emotions. I believe that in general, subjective data processing skills are key to improving personal effectiveness.


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About Danny Greefhorst

Danny Greefhorst, MSc., is a Principal Consultant and Director of ArchiXL in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, and acts as an architect and consultant for clients in the financial and public sector. He has extensive experience with the definition and implementation of enterprise architectures, application architectures and technical architectures. In addition, he coaches organizations in setting up and executing their architecture function. Danny is responsible for the EA portal Via Nova Architectura and is a member of the governing board of the architecture department of the Dutch Computing Association. Danny is active in the architecture community, regularly publishes on IT and architecture related topics and is co-author of the book Architecture Principles: The Cornerstones of Enterprise Architecture. He can be reached at