Critical thinking: A must-have skill in data analytics

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Over the past few years, critical thinking has been deemphasized in education and lacking in business. But to get the most out of your analytics, someone needs to be asking incisive questions.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto/fizkes

In 2020, the Data Science Council of America reported that 89% of CEOs believed they would lose their market share without insights from big data. Yet 45% of CEOs said inadequate data insights were hindering their customer insights and 56% didn’t feel they could rely on the validity of their data.

Behind this mistrust are questions about the accuracy of analytics software — but is it also time to consider that employees themselves might lack some of the critical thinking  skills needed to get the most out of their analytics?

The Brookings Institution offers an example of automated analytics risk assessments that have been used by US judges to determine bail and sentencing limits. These analytics “can generate incorrect conclusions, resulting in large cumulative effects on certain groups, like longer prison sentences or higher bails imposed on people of color,” Brookings said. The reason is that historically, certain groups of people have been subjected  to more frequent and harsher sentencing.

In another example, RAND Corporation reported that COVID-19 recommendations for social distancing were initially based upon data collected from smart thermometers, but this data didn’t  necessarily take into account that it would most likely be healthier and wealthier people who had the thermometers.

Both cases would have benefitted from more critical thinking — and it is exactly “false positive” analytics reports like this that generate distrust of analytics in CEOs.

SEE: Artificial Intelligence Ethics Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

How can companies improve the critical thinking of employees and their analytics?

1. Emphasize critical thinking skills

Modern students are quite adept at memorizing and regurgitating facts presented in class or in reading materials, but the ability to reason, think critically, and problem-solve has actually been dramatically reduced in recent years,” said Stephen Camarata, Ph.D., a professor at both the Bill Wilkerson Center and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Potential causative factors cited are parents not putting enough time into developing their children’s critical thinking and college professors making classes easier so they can receive better instructor and course evaluations from students.

Regardless of cause, it’s clear that business must take an active role in finding and developing employees with critical thinking skills. One way this can be done is by teaming with local colleges and universities in the development of curricula and student internship programs that place emphasis on critical thinking skills, such as correct problem identification, research, bias detection and inference of conclusions based upon analyses of raw information.

2. Recruit for critical thinking

HR departments can aid in the process of critical thinking hiring by administering pre-employment critical thinking and problem-solving aptitude tests.

3. Develop and embed critical thinking skills in your organization

IT, data science and other internal departments can further critical thinking by embedding it into analytics methodology. For example, an analytics QA checklist could include steps like:

  • Have you assessed the analytics for potential bias?
  • Have you reviewed all possible data sources to ensure that the analytics are being applied to the most inclusive set of data?
  • Is there anything about the subject being studied that might have been missed?
  • Is there anyone else inside or outside of the organization who should participate in the QA review?

Final words

There is pressure in companies for individuals to perform, and to do it quickly. At the same time, there are pressures on employees to align their opinions with prevailing thought. If the goal of analytics is to create breakthroughs in insights, analytics must be free to break through conventional thinking, so uncommon and elusive problems can be solved.

The Indian teacher Sadhguru once said,  “When your mind is full of assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs, it has no penetration, it just repeats past impressions.”



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