Sherlock Holmes is having a moment right now. The second episode of the rebooted Hollywood franchise is in cinemas, following the £300 million-plus success of Robert Downey Jr’s first outing. Meanwhile, six million people have been tuning in to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in the updated BBC version.
So what is the appeal to modern audiences of a character from the 19th Century? Holmes’s constant request to his trusty partner Dr Watson is, “give me data”. (Later reprised by Sgt Joe Friday in Dragnet as “just give me the facts”.) His clients are always overwhelmed by a mass of confusing or apparently contradictory information. By looking at patterns in those events or indicators around them, Holmes is able to reveal their hidden meaning - the whereabouts of a crucial naval treaty or how a relative is trying to kill off an heiress.
Modern life is full of similarly confusing events and an almost overwhelming mass of information. In business, this is reaching tsunami-level proportions that can threaten to sweep away established practices for understanding customers, markets, products and sales. The big data movement is a response to this unprecedented wave of data and proposes new tools and techniques for dealing with it.
What is still required is somebody with the intelligence, skills and insight to look at that data and work out what it all means. Businesses always hope that their data analysts will come up with startling and often counter-intuitive outputs that transform the way they look at things, just as Holmes frequently does in order to solve a case.
Of course, this does not always happen. Nor can it - the issues faced by business are not murder cases where a single act or individual needs to be identified in order to make sense of everything. Rather, there will often be multiple, overlapping challenges to confront which need to be understood and then prioritised.
Holmes gives us the reassurance that everything ultimately makes sense and order will be restored. Data mining and analysis can not necessarily provide a similar feeling. But it can prove that there is some kind of underlying structure to the apparent chaos, whether it is identifying similar types of customer in a mass of individuals or revealing common behaviours within the seemingly endless paths followed through social media.
Data analysts would do well to adopt some Holmesian qualities - a willingness to dig right into the data and to re-order it regardless of its supposed structure. They should also avoid some of his flaws, like abruptness and a lack of empathy. Still, there are worse heroes to have and, given the character’s current popularity, it is yet another way of getting attention within business to the value of data.