The 23 Most Influential Business Intelligence Blogs

BI Software Insight

I was flattered to be included in the recent list of the 23 most influential BI bloggers published by BI Software Insight. To be 100% honest, I was also a little surprised as, due to other commitments, this blog has received very little of my attention in recent years. Taking a glass half full approach, maybe my content stands the test of time; it would be nice to think so.

BI Software Insight List

It was also good to be in the company of various members of the BI community whose work I respect and several of whom I have got to know on-line or in person. These include (as per the original article, in no particular order):

Blogger Blog
Augusto Albeghi Upstream Info
Bruno Aziza * His blog on Forbes
Howard Dresner Business Intelligence
Barney Finucane Business Intelligence Products and Trends
Marcus Borba Business Analytics News
Cindi Howson BI Scorecard

* You can see Bruno and me talking on Microsoft’s YouTube channel here.
 


 
BI Software Insight helps organizations make smarter purchasing decisions on Business Intelligence Software. Their team of experts helps organizations find the right BI solution with expert reviews, objective resource guides, and insights on the latest BI news and trends.
 

 

Forming an Information Strategy: Part III – Completing the Strategy

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

Maybe we could do with some better information, but how to go about getting it? Hmm...

This article is the final of three which address how to formulate an Information Strategy. I have written a number of other articles which touch on this subject [1] and have also spoken about the topic [2]. However I realised that I had never posted an in-depth review of this important area. This series of articles seeks to remedy this omission.

The first article, Part I – General Strategy, explored the nature of strategy, laid some foundations and presented a framework of questions which will need to be answered in order to formulate any general strategy. The second, Part II – Situational Analysis, explained how to adapt the first element of this general framework – The Situational Analysis – to creating an Information Strategy. In Part I, I likened formulating an Information Strategy to a journey, Part III – Completing the Strategy sees us reaching the destination by working through the rest of the general framework and showing how this can be used to produce a fully-formed Information Strategy.

As with all of my other articles, this essay is not intended as a recipe for success, a set of instructions which – if slavishly followed – will guarantee the desired outcome. Instead the reader is invited to view the following as a set of observations based on what I have learnt during a career in which the development of both Information Strategies and technology strategies in general have played a major role.
 
 
A Recap of the Strategic Framework

Forth Rail Bridge
© http://www.thomashogben.co.uk

I closed Part I of this series by presenting a set of questions, the answers to which will facilitate the formation of any strategy. These have a geographic / journey theme and are as follows:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Where do we want to be instead and why?
  3. How do we get there, how long will it take and what will it cost?
  4. Will the trip be worth it?
  5. What else can we do along the way?

Part II explained the process of answering question 1 through the medium of a Situational Analysis. It is worth pointing out at this juncture that the Situational Analysis will also naturally form the first phase of the more lengthy process of gathering and analysing business requirements. For the purposes of the rest of this article, when such requirements are mentioned, they are taken as being the embryonic ones captured as part of the Situational Analysis.

In this final article I will focus on how to approach obtaining answers to questions 2 to 5. Having spent quite some time considering question 1 in the previous chapter, the content here will be somewhat briefer for the remaining questions; not least as I have covered some of this territory in earlier articles [3].
 
 
2. Where do we want to be instead and why?

My thoughts here split into two sub-sections. The second, What does Good look like?, is (as will be obvious from the title) more forward looking than backward. It covers reasons why the destination may be worth the journey. The first is more to do with why staying in the current location may not be a great idea [4]. However, one motivation for not staying put is that somewhere else may well be better. For this reason, there is not definitive border between these two sub-sections and it will be evident from the text that they instead bleed into each other.

2a. Drivers for Change

Change Next Exit

People often say that the gains that result from Information Programmes are intangible. Of course some may indeed be fairly intangible, but even the most ephemeral of these will not be entirely immune from some sort of valuation. Other benefits, when examined closely enough, can turn out to be surprisingly tangible [5]. In making a case for change (and of course the expenditure associated with this) it is good to try to have a balance of tangible and intangible factors. Here is a selection which may be applicable:

Internal IT drivers

  • These often centre around both the cost and confusion associated with a fragmented and inconsistent Information Landscape; something which, even as we head in to 2015, is still not atypical.
  • Opportunity costs may arise from an inability to combine data from different repositories or to roll up data to cover an entire organisation.
  • There is also a case to be made here around things like the licensing costs that result from having too many information repositories and too many tools being used to access them.
  • However, the cost of remediating such fragmentation can often appear in the shape of additional IT headcount devoted to maintaining a complex landscape and additional business headcount devoted to remediating information shortcomings.

Productivity gains

  • Less number crunching, more business-focussed analysis. Often an organisation’s most highly qualified (and highly paid) staff can spend much of their time repeating quotidian tasks that computers could do far more reliably. Freeing up such able and creative people to add more business value should be an objective and should have benefits.
  • At one company I estimated that teams would spend 5-7 days assembling the information necessary to support a meeting with one of a number of key business partners or a major client; our goal became to provide the same information effectively instantaneously; these types of benefits can be costed and also tend to resonate with business stakeholders.

Increasing sales / improving profitability

  • All information programmes (indeed most any business activity) should be dedicated to increasing profitability of course. In some specific industries the leverage of high-quality information is more readily associated with profitability than others. However, with enough time spent understanding the dynamics of an organisation, I would suggest that it is possible to make this linkage in a credible manner in pretty much any industry sector.
  • With respect to sales, sometimes if you want to increase say cross-selling, a very effective way is simply to measure it, maybe by department and salesperson. If there is some reliable way to track this, improvements in cross-selling will inevitably follow.

Mitigating operational risk

  • More reliable, unbiased and transparent production of information can address a number of operational risks; what these are specifically will vary from organisation to organisation.
  • However, most years see some organisation or another have to restate they results – there have been cases where adding two figures rather than subtracting them has led to a later restatement. Cases can often be built around the specific pain points in an organisation, or sometimes even near misses that were caught at the 11th hour.
  • Equally the cost of checking and re-checking figures before publication can be extremely high.

It is also generally worth asking business users what value they would ascribe to improved information, for example what things could they do under new arrangements that they cannot do now? It is important here that any benefits – and in particular any ones which prove to be intangible – are expressed in business language, not technical jargon.

2b. What does Good look like?

OK this dates me - I don't care!

Answering this question is predicated on both experience of successful information improvement programmes and a degree of knowledge about the general information market. There are two main elements here, what does good look like technically and what does it look like from a process / people perspective.

To cover the technical first, this is the simpler area, not least as we have understood how to develop robust, flexible and highly-performing information architectures for at least 15 years.

Integrated Information Architecture (click to view a larger version in a new tab)

The basics are shown in the diagram above [6]. Questions to consider here include:

  • What would a new information architecture look like?
  • What are the characteristics of the new which would indicate that it is an improvement on the old, can these be articulated to non-technical people?
  • What are required elements and how do they relate to the high-level needs captured in the Situational Analysis?
  • How does the proposed architecture relate to incumbent technologies and current staff skills?
  • Can any elements of existing information provision be leveraged, either temporarily or on an ongoing basis?
  • What has worked for other organisations and why would this be pertinent to the organisation in question?
  • Are any new developments in technology pertinent?

Arguably the more important area is the non-technical. Here there is a range of items to consider, some of which are captured in the following exhibit [7]:

Information Process (click to view a larger version  in a new tab)

I could spend an separate set of articles commenting on the elements of the above diagram; indeed I already have and interested readers are directed to the footnotes for links to some of these [8]. However it is worth pointing out the critical role to be played by both user education (a more apt phrase than training) and formal Data Governance. Also certain elements of information tend to work well when they sit within a regular business process; such as a monthly or quarterly review of specific aspects of results and future projections.
 
 
3. How do we get there, how long will it take and what will it cost?

Tube ticket machines

3a. Outline an Indicative Programme of Work

I am not going to offer Programme Planning 101 here, but briefly the first step in putting together an indicative programme of work is to decompose the overall journey into chunks, each of which can then be estimated. Each chunk should cover a group of reports / analyses and include activities from requirements gathering through to testing and finally deployment [9]. For the purposes of an indicative programme within a strategy document, the strategist can rely upon both information gathered in the Situational Analysis and their own experience of how to best decompose such work. Ultimately the size and number of the chunks should be dictated by business need, but at this stage estimates can be based upon experience and reasonable assumptions.

It is important that each chunk (or sub-chunk) delivers value and offers an opportunity for the approach and progress to be reviewed. A further factor to consider when estimating these chunks is that they should be delivered at a pace which allows them to be properly digested by users; resource allocations should reflect this. For each chunk the strategist should consider the type and quantum of resource required and the timing with which these are applied.

The indicative programme plan should also include a first phase which relates to reviewing the plan itself. Forming a strategy involves less people than running a programme. Even if initial estimation is carried out very diligently, it is likely that further issues will emerge once more detailed work later commences. As the information programme team ramps up, it is important that time is allocated for new team members to kick the tyres on the plan and make recommendations for improvement.

3b. How much will it cost?

Coins on scales

A big element of cost estimates will be a by-product of the indicative programme plan, which will cover programme duration and the amount of resource required at different points. Some further questions to consider when looking to catalogue costs include the following:

  • What are baseline costs for current information provision?
  • To what degree to these need to be incurred in parallel to an information improvement programme, are there ways to reduce these legacy costs to free up funds for the central programme?
  • What transitional costs are needed to execute the Information Strategy?
    • Hardware and software: is change necessary?
    • People: what is the best balance between internal, contract and outsourced resources, to what degree can existing staff be leveraged without compromising their current responsibilities?
    • How will costs vary by programme phase, will these taper as elements of older information systems are replaced by new facilities?
    • Can costs be reduced by having people play different roles at different points in the programme?
  • What costs will be ongoing once the strategy has been executed?
  • How do these compare to the current baseline?
  • Sometimes one aim of an Information Strategy will be to reduce to cost of ongoing support and maintenance, if so, how will this be achieved and how will any transition be managed?

A consideration here is whether the most important thing is to maximise speed of delivery or minimise risk? Things that will reduce risk could include: initial exploratory phases; starting with a small number of programme resources and increasing these based only on success; and instigating appropriate governance processes. However each of these will also increase duration and therefore cost. In some areas a trade off will be necessary and which side of these equations is more important will vary from organisation to organisation.
 
 
4. Will the trip be worth it?

Pros and cons

Answering parts of question 2 will help with getting a handle on potential benefits of executing an Information Strategy. Work on question 3 will get us an idea of the timeframes and costs involved. There is a need to combine the two of these into a cost / benefit analysis. This should be an honest and transparent assessment of the potential payback of adopting the Information Strategy. Given that most Information Strategies will take more than a year to implement and that benefits may equally be realised on an ongoing basis, it will generally make sense to look at figures over a 3-5 year period. It may be possible to draw up a quasi-P&L statement showing the impact of adopting the strategy, such an approach can resonate with senior stakeholders.

Points to recall and questions to consider here include:

  • Costs will emerge from the Indicative Programme Plan, but remember the ongoing costs of maintaining existing information capabilities.
  • As with most initiatives, the benefits of information programmes split into tangible and intangible components:
    • Where possible make benefits tangible even if this requires a degree of guesstimation [10].
    • Remember that many supposed intangibles can be estimated with some thought.
  • What benefits have other companies seen from similar programmes, particularly ones in the same industry sector?
  • Is it possible to perform “what if?” scenarios with current and future capabilities; could better information could have led to better outcomes? [11]
  • Ask business people to estimate the impact of better information.
  • Intangible benefits resonate where they are expressed in clear business language, not IT speak.

It should be borne in mind here that the cost / benefit analysis may not add up. If this is the case, then either a less expensive approach is more suitable for the company, or the potential benefits need to be looked at again. Where progress can genuinely not be made on either of these areas, the responsible strategist will acknowledge that doing nothing may well be the logical approach for the organisation in question.
 
 
5. What else can we do along the way?

Here be elephants

Finally, it is worth noting that short-term tactical deliveries can strongly support a strategy [12]. Interim work can meet urgent business needs in a timely manner. This is a substantial benefit in itself and also evidences progress in the area of improving information capabilities. It also demonstrates that that the programme team understands commercial pressures. This type of work is also complementary in that it can be used to:

  • Validate some elements of the cost / benefit analysis.
  • Round out requirements gathering.
  • Highlight any areas which have been overlooked.
  • Provide invaluable deployment and training experience, which can be leveraged for the implementation of more strategic capabilities.

It can also be useful make mistakes early and with small deliverables, not later with major ones. For these reasons, it is suggested that any Information Strategy should embrace “throw away” work. However this should be reflected in the overall programme plan and resources should be specifically allocated to this area. If this is not done, then tactical work can easily overwhelm the team and prevent progress on more strategic areas from being made; generally a death knell for a programme.
 
 
A Recap of the Main Points

  1. Carry out a Situational Analysis.
  2. As part of this, start the process of capturing High-level Business Requirements.
  3. Establish Drivers for Change, what benefits can be realised by better information, or by producing information in a better way?
  4. Ask “What Does Good Look Like?”, from both a technical and a process / people point of view.
  5. Develop an Indicative Programme of Work with realistic resource estimates and durations.
  6. Estimate Current, Transitional and Ongoing Costs.
  7. Itemise some of the major Interim Deliverables.
  8. Create a Cost / Benefits Analysis.

 
Bringing everything together

Chickie in dee Basget! Ing vurn spuur dee Chickie, Uun yeh vurn spay dee Basget!

There is a need to take the detailed work described over the course of the last three articles and the documentation which has been created as part of the process and to distill these down into a format that is digestible by senior management. There is no silver bullet here, summarising screeds of detail in a way that preserves the main points and presents them in a way that resonates is not easy. It takes judgement, an understanding of how businesses operate and strong analytical, writing and often diagrammatic skills. These will not be acquired by reading a blog article, but by honing experience and expertise over many years of work. To an extent, producing relevant and cogent summaries is where good IT professionals earn their money.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is no book entitled Summarising Complex Issues for Dummies [13], [14].

This article and its two predecessors have been akin to listing the ingredients required to make a complex meal. While it is difficult to make great food without good ingredients or with some key spice missing, these things are not sufficient to ensure culinary excellence; what is also needed is a competent chef [15]. I cook a lot myself and, whenever I try a recipe for the first time, it can be a bit fraught. Sometimes I don’t get all of the elements of the meal ready at the same time, sometimes while I’m paying attention to reading the instructions for one part, another part boils over, or gets burnt. These problems with cooking tend dissipate with repetition. In the same way, what is generally needed in developing a sound Information Strategy is the equivalents great ingredients, a competent chef and an experienced one as well.
 

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

 
Notes

 
[1]
 
These include (in chronological order):

 
[2]
 
IRM European Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence Conference
– November 2012
 
[3]
 
Where this is the case, I will of course provide links back to my previous work.
 
[4]
 
Some of the factors here may come to light as a result of the previous Situational Analysis of course.
 
[5]
 
I grapple with estimating the potential payback of Information Programmes in a series of earlier articles:

 
[6]
 
This is an expanded version of the diagram I posted as part of Using multiple business intelligence tools in an implementation – Part I back in May 2009. I have elided details such as the fine structure of the warehouse (staging, relational, multidimensional etc.), master data sources and also which parts of it are accessed by different tools and different types of users. In a severe breach with the traditional IT approach, I have also left some arrows out.
 
[7]
 
This is an updated version of an exhibit I put together working with an actuarial colleague back in 2001, early in my journey into information improvement programmes.
 
[8]
 
These include my trilogy on the change management aspects of information programmes:

and a number of articles relating to Data Governance / Data Quality, notably:

 
[9]
 
Sometimes the first level of decomposition will need to be broken up into further and smaller chunks with this process iterating until the strategist reaches tasks which they are happy to estimate with a degree of certainty.
 
[10]
 
It may make sense to have different versions of the cost / benefit analysis, more conservative ones including only the most tangible benefits and more aggressive ones taking in to account benefits which have to be somewhat less certain.
 
[11]
 
Again see the series of three articles starting with Using historical data to justify BI investments – Part I.
 
[12]
 
For further thoughts on the strategic benefits of tactical work see:

 
[13]
 
Given both the two interpretations of this phrase and the typical audience for summaries of strategies, perhaps this is a fortunate thing.
 
[14]
 
I did however find the following title:

I can't however seem to find either Quantum Chromodynamics or Brain Surgery for Dummies

 
[15]
 
Contrary to the image above, a muppet (in the English sense of the word) won’t suffice.

 

 

The need for collaboration between teams using the same data in different ways

The Data Warehousing Institute

This article is based on conversations that took place recently on the TDWI LinkedIn Group [1].

The title of the discussion thread posted was “Business Intelligence vs. Business Analytics: What’s the Difference?” and the original poster was Jon Dohner from Information Builders. To me the thread topic is something of an old chestnut and takes me back to the heady days of early 2009. Back then, Big Data was maybe a lot more than just a twinkle in Doug Cutting and Mike Cafarella‘s eyes, but it had yet to rise to its current level of media ubiquity.

Nostalgia is not going to be enough for me to start quoting from my various articles of the time [2] and neither am I going to comment on the pros and cons of Information Builders’ toolset. Instead I am more interested in a different turn that discussions took based on some comments posted by Peter Birksmith of Insurance Australia Group.

Peter talked about two streams of work being carried out on the same source data. These are Business Intelligence (BI) and Information Analytics (IA). I’ll let Peter explain more himself:

BI only produces reports based on data sources that have been transformed to the requirements of the Business and loaded into a presentation layer. These reports present KPI’s and Business Metrics as well as paper-centric layouts for consumption. Analysis is done via Cubes and DQ although this analysis is being replaced by IA.

[…]

IA does not produce a traditional report in the BI sense, rather, the reporting is on Trends and predictions based on raw data from the source. The idea in IA is to acquire all data in its raw form and then analysis this data to build the foundation KPI and Metrics but are not the actual Business Metrics (If that makes sense). This information is then passed back to BI to transform and generate the KPI Business report.

I was interested in the dual streams that Peter referred to and, given that I have some experience of insurance organisations and how they work, penned the following reply [3]:

Hi Peter,

I think you are suggesting an organisational and technology framework where the source data bifurcates and goes through two parallel processes and two different “departments”. On one side, there is a more traditional, structured, controlled and rules-based transformation; probably as the result of collaborative efforts of a number of people, maybe majoring on the technical side – let’s call it ETL World. On the other a more fluid, analytical (in the original sense – the adjective is much misused) and less controlled (NB I’m not necessarily using this term pejoratively) transformation; probably with greater emphasis on the skills and insights of individuals (though probably as part of a team) who have specific business knowledge and who are familiar with statistical techniques pertinent to the domain – let’s call this ~ETL World, just to be clear :-).

You seem to be talking about the two of these streams constructively interfering with each other (I have been thinking about X-ray Crystallography recently). So insights and transformations (maybe down to either pseudo-code or even code) from ~ETL World influence and may be adopted wholesale by ETL World.

I would equally assume that, if ETL World‘s denizens are any good at their job, structures, datasets and master data which they create (perhaps early in the process before things get multidimensional) may make work more productive for the ~ETLers. So it should be a collaborative exercise with both groups focused on the same goal of adding value to the organisation.

If I have this right (an assumption I realise) then it all seems very familiar. Given we both have Insurance experience, this sounds like how a good information-focused IT team would interact with Actuarial or Exposure teams. When I have built successful information architectures in insurance, in parallel with delivering robust, reconciled, easy-to-use information to staff in all departments and all levels, I have also created, maintained and extended databases for the use of these more statistically-focused staff (the ~ETLers).

These databases, which tend to be based on raw data have become more useful as structures from the main IT stream (ETL World) have been applied to these detailed repositories. This might include joining key tables so that analysts don’t have to repeat this themselves every time, doing some basic data cleansing, or standardising business entities so that different data can be more easily combined. You are of course right that insights from ~ETL World often influence the direction of ETL World as well. Indeed often such insights will need to move to ETL World (and be produced regularly and in a manner consistent with existing information) before they get deployed to the wider field.

Now where did I put that hairbrush?

It is sort of like a research team and a development team, but where both “sides” do research and both do development, but in complementary areas (reminiscent of a pair of entangled electrons in a singlet state, each of whose spin is both up and down until they resolve into one up and one down in specific circumstances – sorry again I did say “no more science analogies”). Of course, once more, this only works if there is good collaboration and both ETLers and ~ETLers are focussed on the same corporate objectives.

So I suppose I’m saying that I don’t think – at least in Insurance – that this is a new trend. I can recall working this way as far back as 2000. However, what you describe is not a bad way to work, assuming that the collaboration that I mention is how the teams work.

I am aware that I must have said “collaboration” 20 times – your earlier reference to “silos” does however point to a potential flaw in such arrangements.

Peter

PS I talk more about interactions with actuarial teams in: BI and a different type of outsourcing

PPS For another perspective on this area, maybe see comments by @neilraden in his 2012 article What is a Data Scientist and what isn’t?

I think that the perspective of actuaries having been data scientists long before the latter term emerged is a sound one.

I couldn't find a suitable image from Sesame Street :-o

Although the genesis of this thread dates to over five years ago (an aeon in terms of information technology), I think that – in the current world where some aspects of the old divide between technically savvy users [4] and IT staff with strong business knowledge [5] has begun to disappear – there is both an opportunity for businesses and a threat. If silos develop and the skills of a range of different people are not combined effectively, then we have a situation where:

| ETL World | + | ~ETL World | < | ETL World ∪ ~ETL World |

If instead collaboration, transparency and teamwork govern interactions between different sets of people then the equation flips to become:

| ETL World | + | ~ETL World | ≥ | ETL World ∪ ~ETL World |

Perhaps the way that Actuarial and IT departments work together in enlightened insurance companies points the way to a general solution for the organisational dynamics of modern information provision. Maybe also the, by now somewhat venerable, concept of a Business Intelligence Competency Centre, a unified team combining the best and brightest from many fields, is an idea whose time has come.
 
 
Notes

 
[1]
 
A link to the actual discussion thread is provided here. However You need to be a member of the TDWI Group to view this.
 
[2]
 
Anyone interested in ancient history is welcome to take a look at the following articles from a few years back:

  1. Business Analytics vs Business Intelligence
  2. A business intelligence parable
  3. The Dictatorship of the Analysts
 
[3]
 
I have mildly edited the text from its original form and added some new links and new images to provide context.
 
[4]
 
Particularly those with a background in quantitative methods – what we now call data scientists
 
[5]
 
Many of whom seem equally keen to also call themselves data scientists

 

 

Forming an Information Strategy: Part II – Situational Analysis

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

Maybe we could do with some better information, but how to go about getting it? Hmm...

This article is the second of three which address how to formulate an Information Strategy. I have written a number of other articles which touch on this subject[1] and have also spoken about the topic[2]. However I realised that I had never posted an in-depth review of this important area. This series of articles seeks to remedy this omission.

The first article, Part I – General Strategy, explored the nature of strategy, laid some foundations and presented a framework of questions which will need to be answered in order to formulate any general strategy. This chapter, Part II – Situational Analysis, explains how to adapt the first element of this general framework – The Situational Analysis – to creating an Information Strategy. In Part I, I likened formulating an Information Strategy to a journey, Part III – Completing the Strategy sees us reaching the destination by working through the rest of the general framework and showing how this can be used to produce a fully-formed Information Strategy.

As with all of my other articles, this essay is not intended as a recipe for success, a set of instructions which – if slavishly followed – will guarantee the desired outcome. Instead the reader is invited to view the following as a set of observations based on what I have learnt during a career in which the development of both Information Strategies and technology strategies in general have played a major role.
 
 
A Recap of the Strategic Framework

LCP

I closed Part I of this series by presenting a set of questions, the answers to which will facilitate the formation of any strategy. These have a geographic / journey theme and are as follows:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Where do we want to be instead and why?
  3. How do we get there, how long will it take and what will it cost?
  4. Will the trip be worth it?
  5. What else can we do along the way?

In this article I will focus on how to answer the first question, Where are we? This is the province of a Situational Analysis. I will now move on from general strategy and begin to be specific about how to develop a Situational Analysis in the context of an overall Information Strategy.

But first a caveat: if the last article was prose-heavy, this one is question-heavy; the reader is warned!
 
 
Where are we? The anatomy of an Information Strategy’s Situational Analysis

The unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy

If we take this question and, instead of aiming to plot our celestial coordinates, look to consider what it would mean in the context of an Information Strategy, then a number of further questions arise. Here are just a few examples of the types of questions that the strategist should investigate, broken down into five areas:

Business-focussed questions

  • What do business people use current information to do?
  • In their opinion, is current information adequate for this task and if not in what ways is it inadequate?
  • Are there any things that business people would like to do with information, but where the figures don’t exist or are not easily accessible?
  • How reliable and trusted is existing information, is it complete, accurate and suitably up-to-date?
  • If there are gaps in information provision, what are these and what is the impact of missing data?
  • How consistent is information provision, are business entities and calculated figures ambiguously labeled and can you get different answers to the same question in different places?
  • Is existing information available at the level that different people need, e.g. by department, country, customer, team or at at a transactional level?
  • Are there areas where business people believe that data is available, but no facilities exist to access this?
  • What is the extent of End User Computing, is this at an appropriate level and, if not, is poor information provision a driver for work in this area?
  • Related to this, are the needs of analytical staff catered for, or are information facilities targeted mostly at management reporting only?
  • How easy do business people view it as being to get changes made to information facilities, or to get access to the sort of ad hoc data sets necessary to support many business processes?
  • What training have business people received, what is the general level of awareness of existing information facilities and how easy is it for people to find what they need?
  • How intuitive are existing information facilities and how well-structured are menus which provide access to these?
  • Is current information provision something that is an indispensable part of getting work done, or at best an afterthought?

Design questions

  • How were existing information facilities created, who designed and built them and what level of business input was involved?
  • What are the key technical design components of the overall information architecture and how do they relate to each other?
  • If there is more than one existing information architecture (e.g. in different geographic locations or different business units), what are the differences between them?
  • How many different tools are used in various layers of the information architecture? E.g.
    • Databases
    • Extract Transform Load tools
    • Multidimensional data stores
    • Reporting and Analysis tools
    • Data Visualisation tools
    • Dashboard tools
    • Tools to provide information to applications or web-portals
  • What has been the role of data modeling in designing and developing information facilities?
  • If there is a target data model for the information facilities, is this fit for purpose and does it match business needs?
  • Has a business glossary been developed in parallel to the design of the information capabilities and if so is this linked to reporting layers?
  • What is the approach to master data and how is this working?

Technical questions

  • What are the key source systems and what are their types, are these integrated with each other in any way?
  • How does data flow between source systems?
  • Is there redundancy of data and can similar datasets in different systems get out of synch with each other, if so which are the master records?
  • How robust are information facilities, do they suffer outages, if so how often and what are the causes?
  • Are any issues experienced in making changes to information facilities, either extended development time, or post-implementation failures?
  • Are there similar issues related to the time taken to fix information facilities when they go wrong?
  • Are various development tools integrated with each other in a way that helps developers and makes code more rigourous?
  • How are errors in input data handled and how robust are information facilities in the face of these challenges?
  • How well-optimised is the regular conversion of data into information?
  • How well do information facilities cope with changes to business entities (e.g. the merger of two customers)?
  • Is the IT infrastructure(s) underpinning information facilities suitable for current data volumes, what about future data volumes?
  • Is there a need for redundancy in the IT infrastructure supporting information facilities, if so, how is this delivered?
  • Are suitable arrangements in place for disaster recovery?

Process questions

  • Is there an overall development methodology applied to the creation of information facilities?[3]
  • If so, is it adhered to and is it fit for purpose?
  • What controls are applied to the development of new code and data structures?
  • How are requests for new facilities estimated and prioritised?
  • How do business requirements get translated into what developers actually do and is this process working?
  • Is the level, content and completeness of documentation suitable, is it up-to-date and readily accessible to all team members?
  • What is the approach to testing new information facilities?
  • Are there any formal arrangements for Data Governance and any initiatives to drive improvements in data quality?
  • How are day-to-day support and operational matters dealt with and by whom?

Information Team questions

  • Is there a single Information Team or many, if many, how do they collaborate and share best practice?
  • What is the demand for work required of the existing team(s) and how does this relate to their capacity for delivery?
  • What are the skills of current team members and how do these complement each other?
  • Are there any obvious skill gaps or important missing roles?
  • How do information people relate to other parts of IT and to their business colleagues?
  • How is the information team(s) viewed by their stakeholders in terms of capability, knowledge and attitude?

 
An Approach to Geolocation

It's good to talk. I was going to go with a picture of the late Bob Hoskins, but figured that this might not resonate outside of my native UK.

So that’s a long list of questions[4], to add to the list: what is the best way of answering them? Of course it may be that there is existing documentation which can help in some areas, however the majority of questions are going to be answered via the expedient of talking to people. While this may appear to be a simple approach, if these discussions are going to result in an accurate and relevant Situational Analysis, then how to proceed needs to be thought about up-front and work needs to be properly structured.

Business conversations

A challenge here is the range and number of people[5]. It is of course crucial to start with the people who consume information. These discussions would ideally allow the strategist to get a feeling for what different business people do and how they do it. This would cover their products/services, the markets that they operate in and the competitive landscape they face. With some idea of these matters established, the next item is their needs for information and how well these are met at present. Together feedback in these areas will begin to help to shape answers to some of the business-focussed questions referenced above (and to provide pointers to guide investigations in other areas). However it is not as simple an equation as:

Talk to Business People = Answer all Business-focussed Questions

The feedback from different people will not be identical, variations may be driven by their personal experience, how long they have been at the company and what part of its operations they work in. Different people will also approach their work in different ways, some will want to be very numerically focussed in decision-making, others will rely more on experience and relationships. Also even getting information out of people in the first place is a skill in itself; it is a capital mistake for even the best analyst to theorise before they have data[6].

This heterogeneity means that one challenge in writing the business-focussed component of a Situational Analysis within an overall Information Strategy is sifting through the different feedback looking for items which people agree upon, or patterns in what people said and the frequency with which different people made similar points. This work is non-trivial and there is no real substitute for experience. However, one thing that I would suggest can help is to formally document discussions with business people. This has a number of advantages, such as being able to run this past them to check the accuracy and completeness of your notes[7] and being able to defend any findings as based on actual fact. However, documenting meetings also facilitates the analysis and synthesis process described above. These meeting notes can be read and re-read (or shared between a number of people collectively engaged in the strategy formulation process) and – when draft findings have been developed – these can be compared to the original source material to ensure consistency and completeness.

IT conversations

I preferred Father Ted (or the first series of Black Books) myself; can't think where the inspiration for these characters came from.

Depending on circumstances, talking to business people can often be the largest activity and will do most to formulate proposals that will appear in other parts of the Information Strategy. However the other types of questions also need to be considered and parallel discussions with general IT people are a prerequisite. An objective here is for the strategist to understand (and perhaps document) the overall IT landscape and how this flows into current information capabilities. Such a review can also help to identify mismatches between business aspirations and system capabilities; there may be a desire to report on data which is captured nowhere in the organisation for example.

The final tranche of discussions need to be with the information professionals who have built the current information landscape (assuming that they are still at the company, if not then the people to target are those who maintain information facilities). There can sometimes be an element of defensiveness to be overcome in such discussions, but equally no one will have a better idea about the challenges with existing information provision than the people who deal with this area day in and day out. It is worth taking the time to understand their thoughts and opinions. With both of these groups of IT people, formally documented notes and/or schematics are just as valuable as with the business people and for the same reasons.

Rinse and Repeat

The above conversations have been described sequentially, but some element of them will probably be in parallel. Equally the process is likely to be somewhat iterative. It is perhaps a good idea to meet with a subset of business people first, draw some very preliminary conclusions from these discussions and then hold some initial meetings with various IT people to both gather more information and potentially kick the tyres on your embryonic findings. Sometimes after having done a lot of business interviews, it is also worth circling back to the first cohort both to ask some different questions based on later feedback and also to validate the findings which you are hopefully beginning to refine by now.

Of course a danger here is that you could spend an essentially limitless time engaging with people and not ever landing your Situational Analysis; in particular person A may suggest what a good idea it would be for you to also meet with person B and person C (and so on exponentially). The best way to guard against this is time-boxing. Give your self a deadline, perhaps arrange for a presentation of an initial Situational Analysis to an audience at a point in the not-so-distance future. This will help to focus your efforts. Of course mentioning a presentation, or at least some sort of abridged Situational Analysis, brings up the idea of how to summarise the detailed information that you have uncovered through the process described above. This is the subject of the final section of this article.
 
 
In Summary

Sigma

I will talk further about how to summarise findings and recommendations in Part III, for now I wanted to focus on just two aspects of this. First a mechanism to begin to identify areas of concern and second a simple visual way to present the key elements of an information-focussed Situational Analysis in a relatively simple exhibit.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

To an extent, sifting through large amounts of feedback from a number of people is one way in which good IT professionals earn their money. Again experience is the most valuable tool to apply in this situation. However, I would suggest some intermediate steps would also be useful here both to the novice and the seasoned professional. If you have extensive primary material from your discussions with a variety of people and have begun to discern some common themes through this process, then – rather than trying to progress immediately to an overall summary – I would recommend writing notes around each of these common themes as a good place to start. These notes may be only for your own purposes, or they may be something that you also later choose to circulate as additional information; if you take the latter approach, then bear the eventual audience in mind while writing. Probably while you are composing these intermediate-level notes a number of things will happen. First it may occur to you that some sections could be split to more precisely target the issues. Equally other sections may overlap somewhat and could benefit from being merged. Also you may come to realise that you have overlooked some areas and need to address these.

Whatever else is happening, this approach is likely to give your subconscious some time to chew over the material in parallel. It is for this reason that sometimes the strategist will wake at night with an insight that had previously eluded them. Whether or not the subconscious contributes this dramatically, this rather messy and organic process will leave you with a number of paragraphs (or maybe pages) on a handful of themes. This can then form the basis of the more summary exhibit which I describe in the next section; namely a scorecard.

An Information Provision Scorecard

Information provision scorecard (click to view a larger version in a new tab)

Of course a scorecard about the state of information provision approaches levels of self-reference that Douglas R Hofstadter[8] would be proud of. I would suggest that such a scorecard could be devised by thinking about each of the common themes that have arisen, considering each of the areas of questioning described above (business, design, technical, process and team), or perhaps a combination of both. The example scorecard which I provide above uses the areas of questions as its intermediate level. These are each split out into a number of sub-categories (these will vary from situation to situation and hence I have not attempted to provide actual sub-category names). A score can be allocated (based on your research) to each of these on some scale (the example uses a 5 point one) and these base figures can be rolled up to get a score for each of the intermediate categories. These can then be further summarised to give a single, overall score [9].

While a data visualisation such as the one presented here may be a good way to present overall findings, it is important that this can be tied back to the notes that have been compiled during the analysis. Sometimes such scores will be challenged and it is important that they are based in fact and can thus be defended.
 
 
Next steps

Next steps

Of course your scorecard, or overall Situational Analysis, could tell you that all is well. If this is the case, then our work here may be done[10]. If however the Situational Analysis reveals areas where improvements can be made, or if there is a desire to move the organisation forward in a way that requires changes to information provision, then thought must be given to either what can be done to remediate problems or what is necessary to seize opportunities; most often a mixture of both. Considering these questions will be the subject of the final article in this series, Forming an Information Strategy: Part III – Completing the Strategy.
 


 
Addendum

When I published the first part of this series, I received an interesting comment from Gary Nuttall, Head of Business Intelligence at Chaucer Syndicates (you can view Gary’s profile on LinkedIn and he posts as @gpn01 on Twitter). I reproduce an extract from this verbatim below:

[When considering questions such as “Where are we?”] one thing I’d add, which for smaller organisations may not be relevant, is to consider who the “we” is (are?). For a multinational it can be worth scoping out whether the strategy is for the legal entity or group of companies, does it include the ultimate parent, etc. It can also help in determining the culture of the enterprise too which will help to shape the size, depth and span of the strategy too – for some companies a two pager is more than enough for others a 200 pager would be considered more appropriate.

I think that this is a valuable additional perspective and I thank Gary for providing this insightful and helpful feedback.
 

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

 
Notes

 
[1]
 
These include (in chronological order):

 
[2]
 
IRM European Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence Conference
– November 2012
 
[3]
 
There are a whole raft of sub-questions here and I don’t propose to be exhaustive in this article.
 
[4]
 
In practice its at best a representative subset of the questions that would need to be answered to assemble a robust situational analysis.
 
[5]
 
To get some perspective on the potential range of business people it is necessary to engage in such a process, again see the aforementioned Developing an international BI strategy.
 
[6]
 
With apologies to Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation.
 
[7]
 
It is not atypical for this approach to lead to people coming up with new observations based on reviewing your meeting notes. This is a happy outcome.
 
[8]
 
B.T.L. - An eternal golden braid (with apologies to Douglas R Hofstadter

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid has been referenced a number of times on this site (see above from New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 3: LinkedIn), but I think that this is the first time that I have explicitly acknowledged its influence.

 
[9]
 
You can try to be cute here and weight scores before rolling them up. In practice this is seldom helpful and can give the impression that the precision of scoring is higher than can ever actually be the case. Judgement also needs to be exercised in determining which graphic to use to best represent a rolled up score as these will seldom precisely equal the fractions selected; quarters in this example. The strategist should think about whether a rounded-up or rounded-down summary score is more representative of reality as pure arithmetic may not suffice in all cases.
 
[10]
 
There remains the possibility that the current situation is well-aligned with current business practices, but will have problems supporting future ones. In this case perhaps a situational analysis is less useful, unless this is comparing to some desired future state (of which more in the next chapter).

 

 

Phillip Hughes RIP

© International Cricket Council www.icc-cricket.com 2015
© International Cricket Council http://www.icc-cricket.com 2014

Virtually all of the time this blog is focussed on aspects of business, technology and change; even when my writing starts out in an ostensibly different place, I habitually bring my thoughts back to one of these three areas. This post is not like my normal ones. I trust that readers will understand my motivations in deviating from my regular subject matter,

Earlier today it was announced that Australian international cricketer Phillip Hughes (ESPNcricinfo profile here) had sucumbed to injuries suffered two days earlier while playing for South Australia against New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield (Australia’s domestic First Class cricket league). Hughes was struck by the cricket ball somewhere between the top of his neck and base of his skull. He was wearing a protective helmet as most cricketers do nowadays, but these do not cover every angle from which the head can be hit. Without getting into morbid details, Hughes was very unlucky, being hit in exactly the wrong place in exactly the wrong way; cricket is a dangerous sport, but mercifully fatalities are rare.

Regular readers on these pages will know that cricket is my favourite sport. I played in some capacity – though never very well – from under the age of 10 to my mid-twenties. I have followed it ever since and cricket-related articles have appeared on this site on many occasions before. Indeed I have written here about Phil Hughes, here is part of what I had to say about him back in July 2009:

Hughes is only 20 and has burst onto the international cricketing scene in a matter of months. Before the current tour to England, he had played just three Tests (the name given to five day cricket matches between different countries). However, these were all against South Africa, one of the strongest teams in the world at present. In his six innings (a team generally bats twice in a Test Match) he had made 415 runs at the eye-catching average of 69.16 [number of runs / (number of innings – times not out)]. By way of reference, this is higher than any other player in either of the current Australian and English teams.

While to play an international sport for your country is the pinnacle of athletic success, Hughes was not able to fully establish himself at the highest level, though it is possible that – absent these tragic events – he would have had a recall to the Australian team in the near future. His playing record will now sadly show that he played just 26 Test Matches and 25 One Day Internationals. It is however arguable that his best days in cricket were ahead of him. Sometimes batsmen who bloom early, as Hughes did, have a second and more sustained later flowering based on a better understanding of their own game and greater experience.

Of course any life cut short is a tragedy, leaving questions around what the person could have done if granted more time. However, when someone with demonstrable talent, a clutch of achievements and the likelihood of more to come, has their story end too early it does lead to a special type of sadness, coupled with musings about what could have been. Having said that, and even if there is a theme of potential not being wholly fulfilled here, it is worth thinking about just how few people are good enough to represent their country at a sport. Compared to the general population, Hughes had a very special talent, even if he will now not have the opportunity to display this over a longer career.

I didn’t know Phillip Hughes, but it is part of the life of an international sportsperson that we all want a part of them; be they the “heros” who play for our team or the “villains” who represent the opposition (the quotation marks in both cases are wholly intentional). Part of the appeal of sport is its vicarious nature. Having played and watched cricket for years and having both suffered and seen injuries during my playing years, I suppose I do somehow feel close to what has happened to Phil. Perhaps this is just part of the general human need to connect, perhaps we all want to augment our own stories by borrowing from those of other people. In any case, the news of his untimely death while playing my chosen sport has touched me, touched me enough to write about it.

Seldom will associates of a departed person, have bad things to say about them, particularly when the person’s life has ended so suddenly. However it is very noticeable that, amongst the many tributes from the cricketing world, virtually everyone has taken the time to single out what a good person Phillip Hughes was off the field. While his passing is very sad, both for onlookers like me and in a much more real sense for his family and friends, these comments are testament to Hughes the man and not just the sportsman. While the ending was horrible, teammates have said that cricket was the biggest part of his life and – recognising the overused cliché – he died doing something that he loved. I hope that this fact and the kind words said about Phil by everyone who knew him bring some comfort to his family circle.

In closing I’d like to also spare a thought for another person very much affected by these awful events, up-and-coming New South Wales fast-medium bowler Sean Abottt (ESPNcircinfo profile here). It was Abbott who delivered the ball which inadvertently led to Hughes’s demise. It has been good to see the cricketing world rallying round to support Abbott as well, I suspect he will need a lot of help in coming days and months.

Forming an Information Strategy: Part I – General Strategy

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

Maybe we could do with some better information, but how to go about getting it? Hmm...

This article is the first of three which address how to formulate an Information Strategy. I have written a number of other articles which touch on this subject[1] and have also spoken about the topic[2]. However I realised that I had never posted an in-depth review of this important area. This series of articles seeks to remedy this omission.

Part I – General Strategy explores the nature of strategy, lays some foundations and presents a framework of questions which will need to be answered in order to form any general strategy. Part II – Situational Analysis adapts the first part of this general framework – The Situational Analysis – to the task of starting to form an Information Strategy. The final chapter, Part III – Completing the Strategy, rounds out this process by working through the rest of the general framework and explaining how this can be used to produce a fully-formed Information Strategy.

As with all of my other articles, this essay is not intended as a recipe for success, a set of instructions which – if slavishly followed – will guarantee the desired outcome. Instead the reader is invited to view the following as a set of observations based on what I have learnt during a career in which the development of both Information Strategies and technology strategies in general have played a major role.
 
 
What is a Strategy?

A more optimal strategy would probably have been to beware the Ides of March

This would seem to be a relatively easy question to answer as the word is used (more likely over-used) in many areas of human endeavour and in business in particular. Let’s start by seeing if we can reach a consensus by the power of Google:

Wikipedia Strategy (from Greek στρατηγία stratēgia, “art of troop leader; office of general, command, generalship”) is a high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. [and also later in the same article] Max McKeown (2011) argues that “strategy is about shaping the future” and is the human attempt to get to “desirable ends with available means”.
The Oxford English Dictionary[3] /stráttiji/ n. 1 the art of war. 2 a the management of an army or armies in a campaign. b the art of moving troops, ships, aircraft, etc. into favourable positions (cf. TACTICS). c an instance of this or a plan formed according to it. 3 a plan of action or policy in business or politics etc. (economic strategy) [F stratégie f. Gk strātegia generalship f. stratēgeos]
Meta-entry […] a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.
“time to develop a coherent economic strategy” […]
The Business Dictionary […] a method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem. […]

So – assuming we decide, in the context of this blog, that the objective is probably not to better order military affairs, or to teach infantry men and women to write MDX – some sort of loose consensus emerges from the various definitions above. It seems that a strategy is something which seeks to influence the future, to bring about some conditions or cause an event, neither of which would manifest themselves without some action being taken[4]. I am going to adopt the definition that a strategy is a method to achieve some future objective; or at least to make the realisation of this aim more likely. This means that a strategy implies change. If the situation is now X then after the strategy has been successfully enacted then the situation will then be Y[5].
 
 
A Metaphor for Strategy

Plotting a Strategy

The role of change in strategy leads me to think about strategy formulation in the following way[6]. I think of situation X (the current one) as a place on a map. Then situation Y (the desired one) is a second place on the same map. We are at X and we want to get to Y, we have a starting point and a destination, an origin and a terminus. The shortest distance between two points is of course a straight line[7]. However a straight line between between X and Y may not exist (there could be a lake in between with no method to traverse this), or it might not be the quickest route (if the line passes over an intervening mountain, which could instead be more quickly circumnavigated). In general there may be more than one route between X and Y and each may have its advantages and disadvantages. I tend to think of strategy formation as the process by which the best (or, if this is all that is achievable, least bad) route is established.

Of course a challenge here is that – outside the realms of mathematics (or indeed SatNav) – there may not be an optimum route and equally no optimum strategy. Even if an optimum strategy does exist, the strategist may not have enough information[8] to hand to discern this. Also, while effecting change is the objective of a strategy, this aim may itself be impacted by change; to employ our metaphor of travel, change to the destination, or to the territory in between. This may mean that the route (the strategy) must be adjusted, or in some cases wholly abandoned in favour of a different approach. Strategy formulation has some scientific-like qualities and I will focus on some of these shortly. However for the reasons just put forward (and indeed others we will examine later) elements of the strategy formation process can sometimes be more of an art form.

Of course another problem could be that you don’t have a map!

Having introduced a geographic quality to describing strategy formation, I’ll leverage this analogy[9] for the rest of the article. However, first a slight detour to establish the credentials of your guide to the terrain of Information Strategy; namely me. Any readers who are already familiar with my work are encouraged to scroll past the next section.
 
 
So what do I know about Information Strategies anyway?

Résumé

I have worked in IT for over quarter of a century with much of that related to turning data into information. Indeed one of my early tasks during my first job at a software house was to help design and develop the automated Balance Sheet and Profit and Loss statements provided as part of the company’s flagship product. These took the transactions entered into the company’s General Ledger system and assembled them into sensible Financial statements, which could be sliced and diced[10] by period, cost centre or project code. However, my full initiation to the related areas of Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing was not until the beginning of 2000, when I was asked to establish a Management Information function for a pan-European insurance organisation. This means that I don’t reach my 15-year BI/DW milestone until New Year (actually probably some point in the middle of January 2015)[11].

Having both developed and executed an Information Strategy for the European part of this company, I extended both of these processes to encompass Latin America. I then developed a broader Information Strategy which included all of their International operations. It is gratifying to note that this strategy still guides information provision at this organisation to this day. After this, I went on to shape Information Strategies for other companies in sectors such as Manufacturing, Retail and back to Reinsurance / Insurance again. In each of these cases, I either saw the execution of these strategies through to at least their first delivery, or the programmes of work that I crafted were then executed by the teams that I had built.

My teams also won a couple of awards for this work along the way.
 
 
The Questions driving Strategy Formation

Questions

There are many good resources available in printed form and on-line for those who want to understand various approaches to general strategy formulation. For readers who are interested in strategy outside of a technology context and specifically outside of the area of Information Strategy, then Google is your friend. For anyone who is still with us, then while I would not claim to be an all-purpose strategy guru, I think that it is worth starting by presenting some general questions that pertain to the area of strategy formation. I am going to cast these in the shape of the geographic / journey metaphor that I developed above. Adopting this framework, any general strategy will have to answer the following questions:

  1. Where are we?
    Answering this question is the province of a Situational Analysis. Such a study will highlight what is good about the current situation as well as what needs to be changed.
     
  2. Where do we want to be instead and why?
    Here it is useful to consider two things: first Drivers for Change (which may emerge from the Situational Analysis); second a further question, What does good look like? This area is thus a mixture of what is wrong with the current situation and what would be good about the one proposed as the objective of the strategy[12].
     
  3. How do we get there, how long will it take and what will it cost?
    Thinking of the most perfect of destinations is going to be of little use if it costs too much to get there or the journey time is prohibitive. Here the strategist needs to get more concrete and consider realistic estimates of time and money.
     
  4. Will the trip be worth it?
    There is a relation here to areas covered under the earlier bullet points, but answering this question will normally require some sort of cost/benefit analysis. In describing what good looks like, many potential benefits may be articulated, here there is a need to quantify them as best as is possible.
     
  5. What else can we do along the way?
    Some might quibble at the inclusion of this item. However I think that the metaphor of a journey lends itself to considering what tactical work can help buttress the central activities of the strategy.

The framing of the above in terms pertinent to a journey may not be familiar[13], but I think that it is useful. This metaphor also has the benefit of alluding to what is inevitably the case with each of strategy development, strategy execution and the most worthwhile of journeys; they seldom happen overnight.

Having laid some general foundations, the next article in this series, Part II, will begin to be more specific and consider how these questions can be applied to forming the first element an Information Strategy, a Situational Analysis.
 

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

 
Notes

 
[1]
 
These include (in chronological order):

 
[2]
 
IRM European Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence Conference
– November 2012
 
[3]
 
Actually The Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus (1997). Ink on cellulose pulp edition (this format used to be quite popular once upon a time). Also still available from antiquarian booksellers.
 
[4]
 
Yes Minister
Here I assume that waiting around for something to happen, when it was going to happen anyway, is not a strategic approach; “that would be to mistake lethargy for strategy” (© Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Yes Minister – The Writing on the Wall)
 
[5]
 
I suppose the assumption here is that situation Y is preferable to situation X; at least from the point of view of the strategist.
 
[6]
 
Amongst many other articles on this site, see The confluence of BI and change management for an explicit link between change and Business Intelligence.
 
[7]
 
Assuming Euclidean Geometry, if not then maybe try this instead.
 
[8]
 
Here I am using the term generally rather than in the sense of information generated by systems, which even today remains mostly numeric; albeit that other forms of data have streaked ahead of dowdy old numbers some time ago. Numeric data tends to be somewhat easier to transform into information than non-numeric; at least for now.
 
[9]
 
Perhaps it is worth introducing a note of caution about the over-extension of analogies here – I do this in an earlier article bearing the same name.
 
[10]
 
To this day, I have a compulsion to write “dice and slice” as opposed to “slice and dice”, despite the latter being a more logical sequence of events when approaching – say – a butternut squash.
 
[11]
 
I am looking forward to my engraved TDWI decanter immensely.
 
[12]
 
Sometimes the current situation is so bad that simply addressing its shortcomings is enough work for a strategy to consider. More often a strategy will look to ad value beyond just remediating current issues.
 
[13]
 
Though I can hardly claim to be the first person to come up with this metaphor.

 

 

The Kindness of Strangers

Tennessee Williams
“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – A Street Car Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

It is so often stated that it has become a truism of sorts that on-line interactions, particularly those via social media, displace what is termed “real world” or “face to face” interactions. My view is that this perspective, rather than being self-evidently true, is actually apocryphal. I am sure that there are examples of people who have become more isolated (in a physical sense) through use of social media; those who are engaged in a zero-sum game where time spent on-line is at the expense of being around other humans. Most communications media can be accused of the same thing, though I am not aware that anyone ever told Jane Austen to stop wasting her time writing letters and instead get out and meet people. It wasn’t so long ago that people, particularly younger people, were berated for spending so much time on the ‘phone; even back when those were connected to a wall socket by a wire. The same barbs were thrown (and still are) at what we now call Video Games; another area which I admit has occupied a lot of my time in other periods of my life.

There is however a different way of looking at this supposed issue. As I explain in my now rather antiquated review of the Twitterverse:

I have been involved in running web-sites and various on-line communities since 1999.

[…]

I think that Twitter.com[1] can be an extremely useful way of interacting with people, expanding your network and coming into contact with interesting new people.

- Taken from New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 2: Twitter April 2010

I have indeed come in to contact with a wide range of different people through my, admittedly rather intermittent, use of what we now call social media. Importantly, a lot of these people are based in parts of the world, or even parts of my own country, where our paths would have been unlikely to cross. I suppose that a case could be made that any time I spend writing or reading blog articles, or talking to people on Twitter or LinkedIn, could instead have been more profitably employed sitting on a barstool; perhaps in the hope that someone with complementary interests would start talking to me. However, this does seem to be a doubtful assertion to make. As with most things in life (except chocolate of course) balance is the key. If you spend all of your time on social media (or indeed all of your time in bars) you will rule out some social experiences. If instead you spend some time on social media as part of a healthy, balanced diet, then this should lead to a wider range of associates and sometimes even friends. It is also a pretty frictionless way to find people who are passionate about the things that you are passionate about; or indeed to find out why people are passionate about areas that you think might be interesting.

I mention above that – despite the observations I make later in the same paragraph – my own use of social media has been sporadic[2]. Having made some progress in understanding some elements of the area in an earlier stage of its evolution, jumping back in as I am doing now can feel a little daunting. These fears have been somewhat ameliorated by reconnecting with a lot of people, who still seem interested in me and what I have to say[3]. I have also connected with some new people and acknowledging this second occurrence is the actual purpose of this article.
 
 
twelveskip

First, I’d like to offer thanks to Ontario-based Pauline Cabrera (@twelveskip) of twelveskip.com. Pauline describes herself thus on Twitter:

Savvy Digital Strategist / Blogger / Web Designer / Virtual Assistant (http://GeekyVA.com). I dig #SEO, blogging, social media & content marketing.

I found Pauline’s web-site when I was thinking about sprucing up my Twitter header and looking for some advice[4]. Pauline’s observations were clear and helpful, but while I get by OK in creating images (both in a business context and with many of the diagrams on this site), I am not a graphic designer. Given Pauline’s greater experience, I decided to reach out to her. The fruits of this interaction can now be viewed on my Twitter site, @peterjthomas.

Pauline and I reached a commercial arrangement, so I’m not here referring to the kindness of strangers always meaning doing stuff for free. However, while I am sure many other people provide the services that Pauline does, I’m equally confident that very few do it with such speed and professionalism. When you couple these attributes with her being ultra-friendly and displaying an evident delight in doing what she does, you end up with someone it is a pleasure to do business with.

I mentioned that Pauline resides in Canada, I live in the UK, we wouldn’t have bumped into each other without those modern inventions of the Internet, search engines, web-sites and (the subject of the search that allowed me to find Pauline) Twitter.
 
 
Michael Sandberg's Data Visualization Blog

Second, I recently composed an article with a Data Visualisation theme and as part of researching this looked at a number of blogs covering this area. One that stood out was Michael Sandberg’s Data Visualization Blog. Michael describes himself thus:

My main work-related areas of interest are in developing self-service interactive, dynamic reports for Web and Mobile (most notably iPad). I currently develop using MicroStrategy in the Cloud with Netezza.

Michael and I also share a mutual connection in Cindi Howson (@BIScorecard) of BI Scorecard. Despite this, I had not been aware of Michael’s work until recently. I did however connect with him via his web-site. Today he has been kind enough to feature the data visualisation piece I wrote on his blog. It is always gratifying when a fellow professional thinks that your work merits sharing with their network.

In this case, Michael is based in Arizona. The chances of us bumping in to each other, except though us both blogging, would have been slim as well.
 
 
Simon Barnes Author

The final person that I would like to mention is Simon Barnes, the award-winning sports and wildlife author and journalist. I based my recent blog article, Ten Million Aliens – More musings on BI-ology, on his book of a similar name. Aside from his articles for various newspapers being published on-line, Simon has not been noted for his social medial presence until recently. This has now been remedied via his blog Simon Barnes Author and Twitter account, @SimonBarnesWild; Simon has been using the former to showcase chapters from his book.

The kindness that I wanted to point out here is the diligence with which Simon responds to comments on his site. Of course, on a personal note, there is always a frisson of excitement when someone whose work you admire and who is also something of a public figure in the UK replies to you directly as Simon has to me. Politeness and consideration for others pre-date the Internet of course, but treating people reasonably gets you a long way in social media. As Simon seems to do this naturally, I am sure this characteristic will stand him in good stead.

I can’t claim that Simon lives a long way from me, his home in Norfolk is pretty adjacent to my current one in Cambridge. However, despite having read his articles for years, it was only once Simon established a web presence that the opportunity to correspond opened up.
 
 
So, in the couple of weeks during which I have dipped my toe back into the social media water, I have had the privilege to connect (in a number of different ways) with the three people that I mention above. Each of Pauline, Michael and Simon are on-line for different reasons and each have different things to say about very different areas. However, I am interested in what each of them does, as are many other people around the world. It’s hard to imagine an easier way in which I could have formed connections with these three people, one from Canada, one from the US and one from my native UK, than via the Internet and – in these cases – Twitter and Blogging. I think these are useful facts to remember in the face of accusations that social media makes people insular, closed-off and lonely. It may do that to some people, but this is a million miles away from my own experiences and – I strongly suspect – those of many of the people who are now able to access a wider world through their keyboards or touchscreens.
 
 
Notes

 
[1]
 
The “.com” was still in use back in 2010
 
[2]
 
This is something that I cover in another earlier article: Four [Social Media] Failures and a Success. The section describing the first failure (in this case a personal one) begins:

Failure 1 – Thinking that you can dip in and out of Social Media

Articles per month

 
[3]
 
Probably strongly correlated to me being interested in what they have to say of course.
 
[4]
 
I think that the actual search terms were the rather prosaic “twitter header dimensions“.

 

 

Scienceogram.org’s Infographic to celebrate the Phliae landing

Scienceogram.org Rosetta Infographic - Click to view the original in a new tab

© scienceogram.org 2014
Reproduced on this site under a Creative Commons licence
Original post may be viewed here

As a picture is said to paint a thousand words, I’ll (mostly) leave it to Scienceogram’s infographic to deliver the message.

However, The Center for Responsive Politics (I have no idea whether or not they have a political affiliation, they claim to be nonpartisan) estimates the cost of the recent US Congressional elections at around $3.67 bn (€2.93 bn). I found a lower (but still rather astonishing) figure of $1.34 bn (€1.07 bn) at the Federal Election Commission web-site, but suspect that this number excludes Political Action Committees and their like.

To make a European comparisson to a European space project, the Common Agriculture Policy cost €57.5 bn ($72.0 bn) in 2013 according to the BBC. Given that Rosetta’s costs were spread over nearly 20 years, it makes sense to move the decimal point rightwards one place in both the euro and dollar figures and then to double the resulting numbers before making comparisons (this is left as an exercise for the reader).

Of course I am well aware that a quick Google could easily produce figures (such as how many meals, or vaccinations, or so on you could get for €1.4 bn) making points that are entirely antipodal to the ones presented. At the end of the day we landed on a comet and will – fingers crossed – begin to understand more about the formation of the Solar System and potentially Life on Earth itself as a result. Whether or not you think that is good value for money probably depends mostly on what sort of person you are. As I relate in a previous article, infographics only get you so far.
 


 
Scienceogram provides précis [correct plural] of UK science spending, giving overviews of how investment in science compares to the size of the problems it’s seeking to solve.