Monday, February 6, 2012

Plato and numbers

By: Dick van Mersbergen
Last week there was a meeting in the Plato room at the Be Informed headquarters, a good chance to check out his quote. It read:
A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.
Numbers are a boy’s best friend
From a very young age, I loved numbers. You can’t argue with them and they never lie. Fortunate enough, I had some talent for maths. This not only made life at school a lot easier, I was able to play with numbers. I was constantly adding, deducting, multiplying and deviding. Numbers were my best friend. (Don’t worry, soon I discovered sports, music, arts, girls and much more). So what is Plato’s problem with numbers?
Scoreboard journalism
Plato reminded me of a Dutch football coach, Co Adriaanse. After a heavy loss with AZ (1-5 at home against Roda JC), has a true Platonist, he said that judgement based on the numbers alone is “Scoreboard journalism”. In his opinion, there is much more to a game. Maybe he meant that journalists need more football knowledge, just like Plato. But what is knowledge?
Bertrand Russell's "Theory of Knowledge" reads: "knowledge might be defined as belief which is in agreement with the facts. The trouble is that no one knows what a belief is, no one knows what a fact is, and no one knows what sort of agreement between them would make a belief true". We don’t know what knowledge is! This is no surprise to me because I play manager games.
Manager games
As a lover of numbers and sports, I like manager games. This is about managing a virtual sports team. You pick a squad and they will then score points for you, based on statistics. This is being organized in many sports, but my focus is on cycling and football. Every year in july, my cycling team is competing against thousands of others in the Tour de France and during the football season I manage a virtual team in the Dutch league; both with variable success.
Of course, numbers and knowledge are very important in these games. I collect statistics in two giant spreadsheets and I read all I can about teams, transfers, tactics, personal incentives, etc. Everything is relevant, for example: cyclists perform significally better just after they became a daddy - really! With all this knowledge, how can I possibly fail?
Wisdom & luck
Unfortunately, others read the papers too and I suspect some to use spreadsheets. The margin between the winner and runner-up is not explained by knowledge. It increases your chances, but crucial decisions need more. You need what the Germans call fingerspitzengef├╝hl, a combination of wisdom and luck. Just like the sportsmen themselves.
Wisdom is “a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgements and actions in keeping with this understanding”.
Plato gave us insight in the limits of knowledge as well. Some time ago, we discussed this in the story on Plato’s Cave: true wisdom is realising you are looking at an image of the world.
Wise decisions
And there is the link with Be Informed: by modeling your business in Be Informed, your model (your picture of the world) follows the changing world. You can rely on the system to manage the data and providing knowledge, and thus create the basis for your knowledge workers to make wise decisions.
I wish you all great wisdom. And good luck.