It is a pleasure and an honor to begin this column on Zen and data in TDAN.com.
What does Zen have to do with data?
Zen is a Japanese word that means awareness. The art of data management and integration is all about helping people and organizations become more aware by seeing the data. In other words, we let people see what is happening so they can act appropriately using this data. This is what Zen is.
Since this is the first column in a series, a question that arose was “where should I start”? In other words, how can this article help to advance the art of data management, analysis, and integration?
I would like to illustrate a possible answer to these questions with the following well-known Zen story that I will paraphrase.
A student decides that they would like to study Zen. The student hears of a powerful Zen teacher and visits this teacher. The student asks the teacher, “Can you please teach me Zen?” The teacher replies, “OK, let’s sit and have tea”. They sit cross-legged on the floor facing each other. The teacher starts pouring tea into the student’s cup. When the cup becomes full, the teacher continues to pour, and the tea starts overflowing onto the floor and then onto the student. The teacher continues to pour until the student finally says, “STOP!!!” The teacher says, “Yes. Stop. Your mind is currently like this overflowing cup. It is too full to learn Zen. There is too much in it. In order to learn Zen, there must be some space available. So, let’s start by emptying this cup and your mind.”
We, in the data profession, have a similar challenge. We are all bombarded with data and stimuli (which, by the way, is data). The people within our organization are often running around with so much to do and not a lot of time or space to first be really centered and grounded. Most peoples’ time is spent reacting unconsciously to budgets, schedules, deadlines, commitments, pressures, goals and most significantly, based upon the way our mind is conditioned.
And the tea (data) keeps getting poured. The marketing firm Yankelovich, Inc. stated that in 2006, the average person was exposed to as many as 5,000 ads per day [i] (it’s likely this is much higher now). Research by Domo says that in 2017, there was 2.5 quintillion[ii] bytes of data generated each day, and that every minute there were over 103 million spam emails sent, over 15 million texts sent, and many other incredulous and overwhelming statistics illustrating how we are bombarded with data.[iii] According to Gartner, there were over 8 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices in 2017, outnumbering the number of people on this planet, and the number is rapidly growing.[iv]
I have had the opportunity to witness many data management, data analytics, and data integration efforts all over the world and I perceive that there is a great deal of restarts, 2.0 and 3.0 efforts, and many failures based upon moving too fast and not taking time to first get grounded. Furthermore, when people are working on data integration efforts, conflicts often arise by moving too fast. Integration means ‘combining into a whole’ and when we move too fast we are prone to disintegration, which means to ‘separate into parts’, or ‘to crumble’.
Now, you may state, we can’t just stop. We have work to do. We have things to get done, places to go, goals to accomplish. Yes, true. However, in my humble opinion, we can be so much more productive if we do 3 main things before we act, namely:
- STOP! Create some space.
- Get very clear in our intentions.
- See what’s going on.
As a tool to remember things, I like to create acronyms. So I created the following acronym, STOP, to assist remembering the above ideas:
- S – SPACE. Before doing anything, create some space. If our minds are too filled up, too busy, or too pressured, then we lose productivity. I often see data professionals (as well as all types of people) trying to do so much, yet not accomplishing as much as they could if they created this space first.
- T – True intention. What are you really trying to achieve? What is your organization really trying to achieve? I had taught classes for a large number of people over the years and I have found that most people and organizations do not have great clarity regarding these questions on what their true intention is.
- O – Open. See what’s happening. In my opinion, E. O. Wilson’s quote about ‘drowning in information, while starving for wisdom’ is profound. The meaning of wisdom from an etymological perspective is that ‘wis’ comes from the Latin ‘vis’, which means ‘to see’, and ‘dom’ is Latin for a ‘state’, which implies action. So, after we are clear on our intention, then it is wise to first open up and see what is happening. For instance, see and understand what is motivating various people, see obstacles that may exist, and so on.
- P – Put into action. STOP does not mean that we don’t act. It means to act productively with awareness (i.e., with Zen). It is important to create space, be clear on our intentions and be open and see what’s happening before we act.
- To summarize, in order to reach our greatest potential, I suggest that it is important to take some time before acting.
I will leave you with my 60 second challenge which is: take 60 seconds sometime in the middle of your work day to just stop, do nothing, just rest your mind. Create some space for the tea (data) to settle and/or empty. This sounds simple, however, in my experience, very few people take on and/or succeed in this challenge. If you do take on this challenge and/or succeed in doing it, please let me know (via email firstname.lastname@example.org, or social media).
I hope this was helpful to you.
[ii] A quintillion is 1 with 18 zeros after it