Looking Back to See the Future: How Old Information Helps Discover What Lies Ahead
By Ivan Bojanic, Senior Integration Architect, Trends & Integration, Gongos, Inc.
What’s the value of old information?
Most of us would say it depends. Sales, satisfaction and profiles are just a few of the countless metrics that companies track over time to gauge performance. In doing so, they can better develop strategies and predict outcomes. Yet while there is value in rear-view mirror approaches, it’s generally accepted that looking just a few years back is a sufficient measure of time.
Now, let’s think about this differently. What’s the value of really old information? What, for example, can 1965 tell us about 2015?
For many of us, intuition says “not much, unless you’re a historian or a stockbroker.” That is because we’re socialized to believe that answers lie ahead of us, not behind.
Surprisingly though, there’s a lot more that we can learn from looking back — far back — than we might imagine.
Think of research as a snapshot. Regardless of the question, when conducting research we’re gathering data at a specific point in time. Whether we want to determine how people are spending their money, who they plan to vote for, or what the best kind of pie is, the information we collect is tied to a point in time; not unlike a Polaroid.
One of the challenges of interpreting this information, however, is to constantly remember that we’re not just processing data — we’re studying human perspectives. And those are subject to forces that run far deeper than the research topic at hand. Social shifts, media trends, and new technologies are just a few of the dynamics that can radically affect how we interpret and extract meaning.
Too often, though, we fail to unravel that meaning and instead focus on the literal translation — which means that, like a photo, what we’re left with can present an exciting scene but may not tell the whole story.
This is where it can be valuable to look back in time. In doing so, we can hope to gain some insight to the human perspectives we’re studying — and the context in which they were shaped. As a result, we can gain a new understanding of that may lie ahead.
A Story of Typical Research
Let’s take a familiar example — world travel.
There’s no shortage of information on travel today; a casual Internet search shows us thousands of possibilities suited to our individual preferences. The most popular travel-related web sites (booking.com, tripadvisor.com, and expedia.com) all help us to research trips and make our own arrangements, and sites such as Airbnb let us rent private homes from total strangers. Social sites like Pinterest inspire us to seek out new places around the world; in turn, inspiring us to share details of our trips on social media and YouTube.
In contrast, studies of the travel industry from the 1960s show a different landscape — one that was still under development. Jet technology, credit cards, and computerized reservation systems were nascent technologies — novelties we take for granted today. Most travel abroad required some sort of human intermediary, whether to help us book tickets, choose lodging, or simply to advise us.
Superficially, it would seem that the story here is simple: like almost everything else in our world, the way we travel was fundamentally changed by technology.
The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t shed light on the human perspectives of either era, and it doesn’t guide our sense of where we’ll be tomorrow. However, if we dig deeper, we’ll see something pretty exciting.
In the 1960s, many of us were traveling abroad for the first time. Travel was a rare thing, fraught with meaning and anxiety, and we weren’t confident that we could pull it off successfully. And so, the intermediaries we relied on weren’t just making our reservations, they were actively guiding our decisions about where to go, how to get there, what to do, and what to avoid. Package tours, seen as ‘safe’, were extremely popular.
If we contrast that to today’s travel, we notice something remarkable. The technologies that we thought were the whole story are actually part of something much larger: a fundamental shift in culture that impacts how we live and how businesses will operate, quite likely for the rest of our lives.
This model is known as “participatory culture” — a post consumer society in which we act not only as consumers but also as producers and contributors.
It represents a social and commercial environment that has low barriers to creative expression; increases our access to information; and values personal experience and ‘authenticity.’ A participatory culture is hands-on, do-it-yourself: if you share culinary photos on Twitter, write (or read) reviews on Yelp, or support someone’s innovative idea on Kickstarter, you’re part of the engine. And, it has further manifested itself in attitudes and behaviors. In seeking experiences, we’re more open, more confident, and not bound to a sense that there’s a “right” way of doing things.
Whatever our research interests, understanding this phenomenon doesn’t just help us better interpret what we see today — it’s essential to developing valid expectations for the future.
“What’s Past is Prologue”
This isn’t to say that up-to-the-minute research isn’t valuable. We’ve developed amazing statistical methods and technologies to better understand the present and predict the future. But it’s worth remembering that these advances lack an essential element — our human perspective. Adding that perspective can potentially take us much deeper, and uncover a larger, hidden story.
The best part is, we may not even have to do much additional work to uncover the perspective. Whether in the form of past research, or even within our own experience, all that information already exists. It can be as simple as a personal reality check: “Does the story fit with how I perceive the world?” If the answer is no, there may be something larger that lies beneath.
Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” That still applies, even in our forward-facing world. So, the next time you find yourself looking ahead for the answers, don’t forget: the real story might be behind you.