Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, co-authors of the excellent book Big Data write in the MIT Tech Review with a good, skeptical look at the risks of relying on data to the exclusion of other factors in decisionmaking. They use Robert McNamara, the hyper-rational architect of the Vietnam War, as their posterchild for data-blindness, and discuss how modern firms have repeated his mistakes in other domains:
The dictatorship of data ensnares even the best of them. Google runs everything according to data. That strategy has led to much of its success. But it also trips up the company from time to time. Its cofounders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, long insisted on knowing all job candidates’ SAT scores and their grade point averages when they graduated from college. In their thinking, the first number measured potential and the second measured achievement. Accomplished managers in their 40s were hounded for the scores, to their outright bafflement. The company even continued to demand the numbers long after its internal studies showed no correlation between the scores and job performance.
Google ought to know better, to resist being seduced by data’s false charms. The measure leaves little room for change in a person’s life. It counts book smarts at the expense of knowledge. And it may not reflect the qualifications of people from the humanities, where know-how may be less quantifiable than in science and engineering. Google’s obsession with such data for HR purposes is especially queer considering that the company’s founders are products of Montessori schools, which emphasize learning, not grades. By Google’s standards, neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg nor Steve Jobs would have been hired, since they lack college degrees.