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Why Baseball's Firings of Scouts Is a Cautionary Tale for Business

Today, successful teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees may analyze a potential player with analytics. But they also ask their scouts' opinions, as well.

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Now that 2019 spring training has gotten under way in Florida and Arizona, excitement about the upcoming season is mounting. And this is where the subject of scouts comes in, because many of the young players in those major league team camps got there precisely through the recommendations of scouts.

Joe Robbins | Getty Images

Related: What the Baseball Playoffs Can Teach Entrepreneurs About Fan Engagement

Those scouts' story is nearly as old as baseball itself: A recruiter sits in the rickety stands at a field in Alabama or the Dominican Republic or Cuba, and scrutinizes a young player’s skill set. If he has the right stuff, voilà! a star is born. Certainly, this is how greats from Lou Gehrig to Bob Gibson to Mike Trout and countless others first came to light.

However, the infatuation with data chronicled by the 2011 hit Brad Pitt film Moneyball has since spread to nearly every major league team; and it's causing baseball to actually turn away from scouting. According to a recent column in the Boston Globe, 30 to 40 scouts are getting laid off every year, and include some of the profession’s biggest names. One scout who lost his job two years ago missed the game so much that he offered to work for expenses only.

“Back in the day, if you were a GM, you didn’t make a move without first consulting with a scout,” this Globe sportswriter said. “Scouts have told me that sometimes they [now] go an entire season without communication with their team’s general manager because are more important to them.”

So, how does this relate to ? The thing is, baseball imitates life, as the saying goes, and the business world is at risk of falling into the same data trap: an over-reliance on analytics. Analytics, as it happens, tell only a partial story about the success, or lack thereof, of a company’s interaction with customers, to the detriment of human insights, which inform the whole story.

Data can spell "distance."

In many businesses today, digitization has provided unprecedented new opportunities to reach customers but has simultaneously created distance between the and customer. Apps and ecommerce have removed much of the person-to-person interaction that used to help companies understand how customers experienced their brands. To compensate, many of these brands turned to analytics as an efficient and seemingly objective way to identify trends and patterns in customer sentiment.

Such over-reliance might be a mistake: While analytics certainly are valuable and should still play a key role, companies all too often mistake data as a proxy for actual human experience. But numbers simply aren’t enough to help businesses see, hear and understand what their customers are feeling on a human level -- just as analytics can’t replace a scout’s intuition honed by years of hardball observation.

Baseball isn’t the only sport to make recent headlines with data-driven changes. As a huge hockey fan, I was intrigued by the National Hockey League’s announcement in late January that next season it will install a “Puck and Player Tracking’ system in all 31 arenas. “Sensors in pucks and on players send signals to antennas in the rafters, creating millions of data points and mountains of real-time information,” the league announcement said.

Sounds cool, right? And I hope the NHL is right in its predictions that the system will “enrich TV broadcasts without distracting from the game” and “give more to hardcore fans and draw in casual fans.” However, I couldn’t help but cheer a dissent by former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider. Now a special assistant to NHL union boss Donald Fehr, Schneider told the Boston Globe that, “When you look at guys like Brett Hull or Wayne Gretzky or Nick Lidstrom … they were never defined by how big they were, how fast they were, how hard they shot.”

Related: Alex Rodriguez's 4 Major League Keys to Success

A complement to data

In business as in sports, human insight is the ideal complement to data. It’s the only way to get a read on the emotional factors that influence a customer’s emotional connection with a brand -- the contextual “whys” for data’s “whats.”

And, importantly, how businesses forge the positive emotional connections they need with customers defines their success in the market today. While digital pioneers like Amazon and Netflix have set new standards for customer-friendly features and innovations, the onus on businesses has increased to empathize with customers and find ways to cater to their motivations, needs and desires.

The ultimate goal, then, is to make the app-driven digital economy as understanding of every customer as businesses once were in the days when you’d walk into a local store and the shopkeeper knew you from years of patronage.

This level of engagement requires not just analytics but human insights gleaned from living, breathing customer research, in the form of focus groups, surveys and hands-on testing at every step of a product or service’s development.

Interestingly, the most successful baseball teams -- champs the , the , the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals -- balance their use of analytics with the human insights they derive from scouting.

“What the Yankees and the Red Sox have done so successfully is combine the two entities so one relates to the other,” the Globe columnist wrote. “In other words, a player who may be analytically perfect for [his] team is double-checked with genuine scouts who can recognize skills by sight that the numbers can’t.”

Related: Three Business Lessons from 'Moneyball'

That’s exactly how it should be in business, too. In these digital times, companies that miss the point are bound to strike out with customers.

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