Flight 370, and Why We Produce Information

Apr 1, 2014

Finance professionals produce information. It’s what we do, so let’s think carefully about why and how we produce that information. In that respect, CNN’s coverage of Flight 370 is instructive.

I’ve recently written some critical, sarcastic things about CNN’s coverage. As one interested in probability and statistics, I’ve marveled at the fact that, in checking in with CNN at random a few times each day, 100% of the time – yes, 100%! – they were covering Flight 370. You could infer that CNN is not covering anything else; that’s disgraceful, considering what else is going on in the world today. A friend has suggested that it’s cruel for me to be so flip about a real tragedy to the people who have loved ones on that plane. Au contraire, it’s CNN that being cruel, with endlessly repetitive, uninformative coverage of a situation that appears increasingly hopeless.

Now, we finance professionals are deluged with pundits’ advice and with software products – business intelligence, big data, and increasingly elaborate dashboards are examples – suggesting that in this increasingly fast-paced world it’s essential that we deliver more and more information, faster and faster.

Yes, delivering information sooner is better than later, but not at the expense of accuracy. And more information is better than less, but not at the expense of obscuring the important messages. Lastly, the value of any information – with “value” for financial information measured by more efficient operations and better decisions – should be greater than its cost to generate. By comparison, CNN’s coverage of Flight 370 has always chosen “more” and faster,” regardless of accuracy and meaningfulness. They’re sure spending a lot of money on it, but then again, their “value” depends on eyeballs.

So be careful out there – you don’t want to become the CNN of enterprise management.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable. I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples. Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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