No Datum is an Island of Serendip

Continuing a series of blog posts inspired by the highly recommended book Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, in this blog post I want to discuss the important role that serendipity plays in data — and, by extension, business success.

Let’s start with a brief etymology lesson.  The origin of the word serendipity, which is commonly defined as a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise” can be traced to the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes were always making discoveries of things they were not in quest of either by accident or by sagacity (i.e., the ability to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion).  Serendip was an old name for the island nation now known as Sri Lanka.

“Serendipity,” Johnson explained, “is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it.  Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you.  It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked.  Serendipitous discoveries often involve exchanges across traditional disciplines.  Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries.  The challenge, of course, is how to create environments that foster these serendipitous connections.”


No Datum is an Island of Serendip

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

These famous words were written by the poet John Donne, the meaning of which is generally regarded to be that human beings do not thrive when isolated from others.  Likewise, data does not thrive in isolation.  However, many organizations persist on data isolation, on data silos created when separate business units see power in the hoarding of data, not in the sharing of data.

But no business unit is an island, entire of itself; every business unit is a piece of the organization, a part of the enterprise.

Likewise, no datum is an Island of Serendip.  Data thrives through the connections, collisions, and combinations that collectively unleash serendipity.  When data is exchanged across organizational boundaries, and shared with the entire enterprise, it enables the interdisciplinary discoveries required for making business success more than just a happy accident or pleasant surprise.

Our organizations need to create collaborative environments that foster serendipitous connections bringing all of our business units and people together around our shared data assets.  We need to transcend our organizational boundaries, reduce our data silos, and gather our enterprise’s heroes together on the Data Island of Serendip — our United Nation of Business Success.


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