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Allowing uncertainty to inspire us

Information Systems in the Cloud

Information Systems in the Cloud

  • 15 Sep 2015

Boole gives us a clue to how we should tap into our own innate moral values to understand the grey areas between True and False in this thought piece from Dr Fergal Carton, Business Information Systems, UCC 

On the 2nd November 2015 UCC will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Boole, the first Professor of Maths at the newly founded university in 1849. Boole was a self taught mathematician, logician and philosopher who introduced the principles of mathematics to the study of reasoning and logic. A century later, Boolean logic was applied by an MIT engineer (Claude Shannon) studying the transmission of information, thereby laying the foundation stone for the digital age.

Boole and Shannon both understood that the codification of thought and the communication of information can help to process and distribute knowledge, but in so doing it can create uncertainty. Representing a complex world by rational data structures necessarily involves some simplification, so contextual detail gets lost in translation. Furthermore, the act of collecting and distributing information can itself distort the contents of the message. Finally, all communication of information is subject to interpretation by the recipient, and the same data can mean different things to different people.

The uncertainty or disorder of reality is something that we must accept when trying to distinguish True from False. We are together with Boole in trying to understand the apparent absurdity of the world around us, whether that is the cholera epidemic in Cork in the 1840's caused by the famine, or the migrant crisis in 2015 caused by war in the Middle East. Fortunately, the brilliant young maths professor was inspired by this ambiguity of reason to leave us a philosophical and scientific legacy that can help us in two important ways today.

Firstly, we can use information to model the reality around us and use the models to draw inferences about likely causes, solutions and potential outcomes. Instead of focusing on the technology aspects of the digital age, we can encourage a culture of decision modelling in organisations. With such models, we can concentrate on asking intelligent questions about our assumptions regarding the world we live in.

In order to properly exploit smart technology, we first require smart people, who can conceive of the data models which will prompt smart questions. We have a unique opportunity to embrace uncertainty, and to let ourselves be inspired by complexity, adversity and apparent absurdity. We can use our smart technology to apprehend and understand the world we live in, but also we can use the virtual models thus created to keep challenging that understanding. If we develop the communication skills to share this know how, digital thinking can really become a source of strategic dynamism.

Secondly, models can become self-correcting if we "close the loop" by measuring actual outcomes against model predictions. This is what Boole prompts us to think about, in suggesting a codification of how the mind works. True and False are not seen as absolute states, but hypotheses that should be proven again and again over time. Information should lead us to a continual questioning of the uncertainty around us, and how that complexity can be understood.

We are not there yet, with most technology investments still related to the enhancement of imperative control by monitoring and surveillance. This is at odds with the empowering potential of model based decisions, and can breed antipathy among employees towards the technology and it's proponents. This limits the potential learning that should occur about the fit between organisational processes and purpose.

Uncertainty surrounds us daily, but as actors in society and the workplace we strive for clarity and rationality. Information systems have traditionally been designed to give visibility of task and activities, quantifying the consumption of valuable resources from an economic viewpoint. The opportunity we have, 200 years on from the birth of a humble teacher who had the tenacity and intellectual courage to attempt to codify rational thought, is to design systems that support decision modelling, scenario analysis and inference / prediction evaluation.

Boole gives us a clue to how we should tap into our own innate moral values to understand the grey areas between True and False:

There seems in the present day to be [even] a superfluous activity of invention, busying itself to accomplish ends that are not valuable, and ministering to a fantastic vanity. Here, then, we are brought again to that position around which all speculations concerning the true welfare of our species seem to resolve, viz. that it essentially contains a moral element.

Dr Fergal Carton specialises in Management Information Systems and Managerial Accounting Systems and worked as a management consultant for 15 years, starting with the Boston Consulting Group in London. He is the Programme Director for the IMI Diploma in Cloud Strategy and a professor at UCC’s Department of Accounting, Finance and Information Systems. This IMI Diploma can be chosen as one IMI Diploma within the IMI Master of Business Framework. The IMI Diploma in Cloud Strategy gives technical and non-technical managers a practical grasp of the business opportunities presented by the cloud computing revolution – and the opportunity to develop a rigorous “Cloud Strategy Blueprint” for their organisation.

With thanks to Desmond MacHale for his book "The Life and Work of George Boole: a Prelude to the Digital Age", 2nd edition, Cork University Press, 2014. 

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