Why IT Guys Don’t Make Good Psychologists

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Instead of viewing information as a resource that resides in databases, we need to see information as something that people themselves make valuable, write professors Donald Marchand and Joe Peppard in the Harvard Business Review:

“It’s crucial to understand how people create and use information. This means that project teams need members well versed in the cognitive and behavioral sciences.

Most IT professionals have engineering, computer science, and math backgrounds. Not surprisingly, they are generally very logical and are strong process thinkers. For tasks such as processing financial trades or retail transactions, these are ideal skills. If, however, the goal is to support the discovery of knowledge, they become a hindrance.

For that reason, big data and other analytics projects require people versed in the cognitive and behavioral sciences, who understand how people perceive problems, use information, and analyze data in developing solutions, ideas, and knowledge.

This shift mirrors the shift in economics to behavioral economics, which applies knowledge from the fields of social psychology and the cognitive and behavioral sciences to develop a new understanding of how people think and behave in markets and economies.

In some organizations today, big data and analytics projects already include people with backgrounds in those fields. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the British tax agency, has recently employed organizational psychologists, who help analytics teams improve their interpretive abilities by, for example, making them aware of their confirmatory biases: their tendencies to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms preconceptions. One such bias was that certain debt-collection approaches worked for particular categories of taxpayers.

HMRC’s leaders recognize that in addition to knowing how the business works —for example, what kind of case can go to court, what that process entails, and why certain cases fail—data scientists also need to understand the mindsets of debt collectors and the behaviors of debtors (for example, why some people who owe taxes pay before a case gets to court and others don’t). The organizational psychologists assist in this.” (Read more here.)

This makes a lot of sense. To understand big data—whether we’re in business, government, education or the nonprofit sector— we need to understand the people behind that data: specifically, the often irrational ways that people act. A strictly logical and linear approach to data won’t give you the whole picture.

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