What is insight?

Insight is a word that appears frequently in the news but it’s rarely defined. Most often it is used to describe a behind-the-scenes view on an issue (Clinton’s post-debate insight) or as a synonym for an expert opinion (An Insight for Investors)

In fact, to have insight simply means to have an understanding of cause and effect in a specific context.

For example, it’s an insight to remark that if I hold a ball in my hand and then release it, gravity will ensure it falls to the ground. I can also have insights about everything from food (the reason the steak tasted horrible was because it was burnt) to finance (you’d be rich if you had have invested in Google early on) to the plant on my desk (it’s going to die unless I water it soon).

But these insights don’t seem all that, well, insightful, do they?

After all, we live in a world that demands more of us than simply identifying that balls fall, steak should be cooked properly, and plants need water to grow. Our world today is more complex, interdependent, and interconnected than ever and we need the interconnected insights to match.

On the Road Again

If insights are about identifying the cause and effect in a specific context, interconnected insights take that specific context and blow it up – way up.

Consider a road network like the one here in California. At a basic level there are highways, main roads, smaller roads, and finally short streets and cul-de-sacs packed with homes. Managing this road network is a complex task, especially so when you recall that everyone from the local homeowners association to the city council to the statehouse and even the White House has input on the way in which these roads and the areas around them are managed.

Changes in one part of the network can have a significant impact on other parts of the network. When a highway is closed down to a single lane or a one-way street through the center of town is closed forcing everyone onto an alternative route, the network quickly becomes congested and can even become dangerous. Simple insights about the road network are useful to a point because, yes, it is important to know that roadwork at 7am on a Monday morning is going to cause more traffic problems than the same roadwork a few hours earlier.

But if you were tasked with managing this network of roads and if you were aiming to keep the traffic flowing, the drivers happy, and the roads well maintained, you’d want more than just a simple insight. You’d want to be able to identify how shutting down one street affects traffic elsewhere, and how these effects cascade through the network as a whole. You’d want to know how basing a road crew in one location affects its ability to respond to an issue somewhere else, and you’d want to find a way to manage all of the stakeholders in the system – drivers, governments, workers, and more – so that you can meet everyone’s idea of a good road network.

The Value of Interconnected Insights

In short, managing a complex network requires interconnected insights that speak to cause and effect outside of a single, specified context. Interconnected insights allows the manager of a system to respond to the system as a whole and not only address problems in isolated silos.

Businesses, government, and individuals can take advantage of interconnected insights to better respond to the challenges they face in their complex systems every day. By coupling the different elements of a system together, modeling the interactions, and simulating change and evolution in that system, it will be possible to extract the sorts of interconnected insights that are required to effectively optimize and efficiently manage that system.

There are hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars of value trapped in non-optimized complex systems – isn’t it about time that we started extracting this value to the benefit of all?

Share This