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

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


These include (in chronological order):

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

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.
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.
These include my trilogy on the change management aspects of information programmes:

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

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.
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.
Again see the series of three articles starting with Using historical data to justify BI investments – Part I.
For further thoughts on the strategic benefits of tactical work see:

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

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

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



Trouble at the top


Several weeks back now, I presented at IRM’s collocated European Master Data Management Summit and Data Governance Conference. This was my second IRM event, having also spoken at their European Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence Conference back in 2010. The conference was impeccably arranged and the range of speakers was both impressive and interesting. However, as always happens to me, my ability to attend meetings was curtailed by both work commitments and my own preparations. One of these years I will go to all the days of a seminar and listen to a wider variety of speakers.

Anyway, my talk – entitled Making Business Intelligence an Integral part of your Data Quality Programme – was based on themes I had introduced in Using BI to drive improvements in data quality and developed in Who should be accountable for data quality?. It centred on the four-pillar framework that I introduced in the latter article (yes I do have a fetish for four-pillar frameworks as per):

The four pillars of improved data quality

Given my lack of exposure to the event as a whole, I will restrict myself to writing about a comment that came up in the question section of my slot. As per my article on presenting in public, I try to always allow time at the end for questions as this can often be the most interesting part of the talk; for delegates and for me. My IRM slot was 45 minutes this time round, so I turned things over to the audience after speaking for half-an-hour.

There were a number of good questions and I did my best to answer them, based on past experience of both what had worked and what had been less successful. However, one comment stuck in my mind. For obvious reasons, I will not identify either the delegate, or the organisation that she worked for; but I also had a brief follow-up conversation with her afterwards.

She explained that her organisation had in place a formal data governance process and that a lot of time and effort had been put into communicating with the people who actually entered data. In common with my first pillar, this had focused on educating people as to the importance of data quality and how this fed into the organisation’s objectives; a textbook example of how to do things, on which the lady in question should be congratulated. However, she also faced an issue; one that is probably more common than any of us information professionals would care to admit. Her problem was not at the bottom, or in the middle of her organisation, but at the top.

So how many miles per gallon do you get out of that?

In particular, though data governance and a thorough and consistent approach to both the entry of data and transformation of this to information were all embedded into the organisation; this did not prevent the leaders of each division having their own people take the resulting information, load it into Excel and “improve” it by “adjusting anomalies”, “smoothing out variations”, “allowing for the impact of exceptional items”, “better reflecting the opinions of field operatives” and the whole panoply of euphemisms for changing figures so that they tell a more convenient story.

In one sense this was rather depressing, someone having got so much right, but still facing challenges. However, it also chimes with another theme that I have stressed many times under the banner of cultural transformation; it is crucially important than any information initiative either has, or works assiduously to establish, the active support of all echelons of the organisation. In some of my most successful BI/DW work, I have had the benefit of the direct support of the CEO. Equally, it is is very important to ensure that the highest levels of your organisation buy in before commencing on a stepped-change to its information capabilities.

I am way overdue employing another sporting analogy - odd however how must of my rugby-related ones tend to be non-explicit

My experience is that enhanced information can have enormous payback. But it is risky to embark on an information programme without this being explicitly recognised by the senior management team. If you avoid laying this important foundation, then this is simply storing up trouble for the future. The best BI/DW projects are totally aligned with the strategic goals of the organisation. Given this, explaining their objectives and soliciting executive support should be all the easier. This is something that I would encourage my fellow information professionals to seek without exception.

How to use your BI Tool to Highlight Deficiencies in Data

My interview with Microsoft’s Bruno Aziza (@brunoaziza), which I trailed in Another social media-inspired meeting, was published today on his interesting and entertaining site.

You can take a look at the canonical version here and the YouTube version appears below:

The interview touches on themes that I have discussed in:


Thanks to Jim Harris’ OCDQ Blog

I would like to start 2011 by thanking Jim Harris for selecting one of my articles – Who should be accountable for data quality? – as a Best Data Quality Blog Post Of 2010 on his Obsessive Compulsive Data Quality blog.

I would recommend Jim’s excellent site as a great repository for current thinking and best practise in this crucial area.

The Business Intelligence / Data Quality symbiosis

The possible product of endosymbiosis of proteobacteria and eukaryots

As well as sounding like the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, the above phrase is one I just used when commenting on an article from the Data and Process Advantage Blog.

I rather like it and think it encapsulates the points that I have tried to make in my earlier post, Using BI to drive improvements in data quality.

I’m not sure whether Google evidence would stand up in court, but I may have coined a new phrase here:

Search for “Business Intelligence Data Quality symbiosis”

Who should be accountable for data quality?

The cardinality of a countable set - ex-mathematicians are allowed the occasional pun

linkedin CIO Magazine CIO Magazine forum

Asking the wrong question

Once more this post is inspired by a conversation on, this time the CIO Magazine forum and a thread entitled BI tool[s] can not deliver the expected results unless the company focuses on quality of data posted by Caroline Smith (normal caveat: you must be a member of and the group to view the actual thread).

The discussion included the predictable references to GIGO, but conversation then moved on to who has responsibility for data quality, IT or the business.

My view on how IT and The Business should be aligned

As regular readers of this column will know, I view this as an unhelpful distinction. My belief is that IT is a type of business department, with specific skills, but engaged in business work and, in this, essentially no different to say the sales department or the strategy department. Looking at the question through this prism, it becomes tautological. However, if we ignore my peccadillo about this issue, we could instead ask whether responsibility for data quality should reside in IT or not-IT (I will manfully resist the temptation to write ~IT or indeed IT’); with such a change, I accept that this is now a reasonable question.
Answering a modified version of the question

In information technology, telecommunications, and related fields, handshaking is an automated process of negotiation that dynamically sets parameters of a communications channel established between two entities before normal communication over the channel begins. It follows the physical establishment of the channel and precedes normal information transfer.

My basic answer is that both groups will bring specific skills to the party and a partnership approach is the one that is most likely to end in success. There are however some strong arguments for IT playing a pivotal role and my aim is to expand on these in the rest of this article.

The four pillars of improved data quality

Before I enumerate these, one thing that I think is very important is that data quality is seen as a broad issue that requires a broad approach to remedy it. I laid out what I see as the four pillars of improving data quality in an earlier post: Using BI to drive improvements in data quality. This previous article goes into much more detail about the elements of a successful data quality improvement programme and its title provides a big clue as to what I see as the fourth pillar. More on this later.
1. The change management angle

Again, as with virtually all IT projects, the aim of a data quality initiative is to drive different behaviours. This means that change management skills are just as important in these types projects as in the business intelligence work that they complement. This is a factor to consider when taking decisions about who takes the lead in looking to improve data quality; who amongst the available resources have established and honed change management skills? The best IT departments will have a number of individuals who fit this bill, if not-IT has them as well, then the organisation is spoilt for choice.
2. The pan-organisational angle

Elsewhere I have argued that BI adds greatest value when it is all-pervasive. The same observations apply to data quality. If we assume that an organisation has a number of divisions, each with their own systems (due to the nature of their business and maybe also history), but also maybe sharing some enterprise applications. While it would undeniably be beneficial for Division A to get their customer files in order, it would be of even greater value if all divisions did this at the same time and with a consistent purpose. This would allow the dealings of Customer X across all parts of the business to be calculated and analysed. It could also drive cross-selling opportunities in particular market segments.

While it is likely that a number of corporate staff of different sorts will have a very good understanding about the high-level operations of each of the divisions, it is at least probable that only IT staff (specifically those engaged in collating detailed data from each division for BI purposes) will have an in-depth understanding of how transactions and master data are stored in different ways across the enterprise. This knowledge is a by-product of running a best practice BI project and the collateral intellectual property built up can be of substantial business value.
3. The BI angle

It was this area that formed the backbone of the earlier data quality article that I referenced above. My thesis was that you could turn the good data quality => good BI relationship on its head and use the BI tool to drive data quality improvements. The key here was not to sanitise data problems, but instead to expose them, also leveraging standard BI functionality like drill through to allow people to identify what was causing an issue.

One of the most pernicious data quality issues is of the valid, but wrong entry. For example a transaction is allocated a category code of X, which is valid, but the business event demands the value Y. Sometimes it is possible to guard against this eventuality by business rules, e.g. Product A can only be sold by Business Unit W, but this will not be possible for all such data. A variant of this issue is data being entered in the wrong field. Having spent a while in the Insurance industry, it was not atypical for a policy number to be entered as a claim value for example. Sometimes there is no easy systematic way to detect this type of occurrence, but exposing issues in a well-designed BI system is one way of noticing odd figures and then – crucially – being able to determine what is causing them.
4. The IT character angle

I was searching round for a way to put this nicely and then realised that Jim Harris had done the job for me in naming his excellent Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality blog (OCDQ Blog). I’m an IT person, I may have general management experience and a reasonable understanding of many parts of business, but I remain essentially an IT person. Before that, I was a Mathematician. People in both of those lines of work tend to have a certain reputation; to put it positively, the ability to focus extremely hard on something for long periods is a common characteristic.

  Aside: for the avoidance of doubt, as I pointed out in Pigeonholing – A tragedy, the fact that someone is good at the details does not necessarily preclude them from also excelling at seeing the big picture – in fact without a grasp on the details the danger of painting a Daliesque big picture is perhaps all too real!  

Improving data quality is one of the areas where this personality trait pays dividends. I’m sure that there are some marketing people out there who have relentless attention to detail and whose middle name is “thoroughness”, however I suspect there are rather less of them than among the ranks of my IT colleagues. While leadership from the pertinent parts of not-IT is very important, a lot of the hard yards are going to be done by IT people; therefore it makes sense if they have a degree of accountability in this area.
In closing

Much like most business projects, improving data quality is going to require a cross-functional approach to achieve its goals. While you often hear the platitudinous statement that “the business must be responsible for the quality of its own data”, this ostensible truism hides the fact that one of the best ways for not-IT to improve the quality of an organisation’s data is to get IT heavily involved in all aspects of this work.

IT for its part can leverage both its role as one of the supra-business unit departments and its knowledge of how business transactions are recorded and move from one system to another to become an effective champion of data quality.



As might be inferred from my last post, certain sporting matters have been on my mind of late. However, as is becoming rather a theme on this blog, these have also generated some business-related thoughts.

On Friday evening, the Australian cricket team finished the second day of the second Test Match on a score of 152 runs for the loss of 8 (out of 10) first innings wickets. This was still 269 runs behind the England team‘s total of 425.

In scanning what I realise must have been a hastily assembled end-of-day report on the web-site of one of the UK’s leading quality newspapers, a couple are glaring errors stood out. First, the Australian number 4 batsman Michael Hussey was described as having “played-on” to a delivery from England’s shy-and-retiring Andrew Flintoff. Second, the journalist wrote that Australia’s number six batsman, Marcus North, had been “clean-bowled” by James Anderson.

I appreciate that not all readers of this blog will be cricket aficionados and also that the mysteries of this most complex of games are unlikely to be made plain by a few brief words from me. However, “played on” means that the ball has hit the batsman’s bat and deflected to break his wicket (or her wicket – as I feel I should mention as a staunch supporter of the all-conquering England Women’s team, a group that I ended up meeting at a motorway service station just recently).

By contrast, “clean-bowled” means that the ball broke the batsman’s wicket without hitting anything else. If you are interested in learning more about the arcane rules of cricket (and let’s face it, how could you not be interested) then I suggest taking a quick look here. The reason for me bothering to go into this level of detail is that, having watched the two dismissals live myself, I immediately thought that the journalist was wrong in both cases.

It may be argued that the camera sometimes lies, but the caption (whence these images are drawn) hardly ever does. The following two photographs show what actually happened:

Michael Hussey leaves one and is bowled, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009
Michael Hussey leaves one and is bowled, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009
Marcus North drags James Anderson into his stumps, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009
Marcus North drags James Anderson into his stumps, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009

As hopefully many readers will be able to ascertain, Hussey raised his bat aloft, a defensive technique employed to avoid edging the ball to surrounding fielders, but misjudged its direction. It would be hard to “play on” from a position such as he adopted. The ball arced in towards him and clipped the top of his wicket. So, in fact he was the one who was “clean-bowled”; a dismissal that was qualified by him having not attempted to play a stroke.

North on the other hand had been at the wicket for some time and had already faced 13 balls without scoring. Perhaps in frustration at this, he played an overly-ambitious attacking shot (one not a million miles from a baseball swing), the ball hit the under-edge of his horizontal bat and deflected down into his wicket. So it was North, not Hussey, who “played on” on this occasion.

So, aside from saying that Hussey had been adjudged out “handled the ball” and North dismissed “obstructed the field” (two of the ten ways in which a batsman’s innings can end – see here for a full explanation), the journalist in question could not have been more wrong.

As I said, the piece was no doubt composed quickly in order to “go to press” shortly after play had stopped for the day. Maybe these are minor slips, but surely the core competency of a sports journalist is to record what happened accurately. If they can bring insights and colour to their writing, so much the better, but at a minimum they should be able to provide a correct description of events.

Everyone makes mistakes. Most of my blog articles contain at least one typographical or grammatical error. Some of them may include errors of fact, though I do my best to avoid these. Where I offer my opinions, it is possible that some of these may be erroneous, or that they may not apply in different situations. However, we tend to expect professionals in certain fields to be held to a higher standard.


For a molecular biologist, the difference between a 0.20 micro-molar solution and a 0.19 one may be massive. For a team of experimental physicists, unbelievably small quantities may mean the difference between confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson and just some background noise.

In business, it would be unfortunate (to say the least) if auditors overlooked major assets or liabilities. One would expect that law-enforcement agents did not perjure themselves in court. Equally politicians should never dissemble, prevaricate or mislead. OK, maybe I am a little off track with the last one. But surely it is not unreasonable to expect that a cricket journalist should accurately record how a batsman got out.
Twitter and Truth

I made something of a leap from these sporting events to the more tragic news of Michael Jackson’s recent demise. I recall first “hearing” rumours of this on At this point, no news sites had much to say about the matter. As the evening progressed, the self-styled celebrity gossip site TMZ was the first to announce Jackson’s death. Other news outlets either said “Jackson taken to hospital” or (perhaps hedging their bets) “US web-site reports Jackson dead”.

By this time the twitterverse was experiencing a cosmic storm of tweets about the “fact” of Jackson’s passing. A comparably large number of comments lamented how slow “old media” was to acknowledge this “fact”. Eventually of course the dinosaurs of traditional news and reporting lumbered to the same conclusion as the more agile mammals of Twitter.

In this case social media was proved to be both quick and accurate, so why am I now going to offer a defence of the world’s news organisations? Well I’ll start with a passage from one of my all-time favourite satires, Yes Minister, together with its sequel Yes Prime Minister.

In the following brief excerpt Sir Geoffrey Hastings (the head of MI5, the British domestic intelligence service) is speaking to The Right Honourable James Hacker (the British Prime Minister). Their topic of conversation is the recently revealed news that a senior British Civil Servant had in fact been a Russian spy:

Yes Prime Minister

Hastings: Things might get out. We don’t want any more irresponsible ill-informed press speculation.
Hacker: Even if it’s accurate?
Hastings: Especially if it’s accurate. There is nothing worse than accurate irresponsible ill-informed press speculation.

Yes Prime Minister, Vol. I by J. Lynn and A. Jay

Was the twitter noise about Jackson’s death simply accurate ill-informed speculation? It is difficult to ask this question as, sadly, the tweets (and TMZ) proved to be correct. However, before we garland new media with too many wreaths, it is perhaps salutary to recall that there was a second rumour of a celebrity death circulating in the febrile atmosphere of Twitter on that day. As far as I am aware, Pittsburgh’s finest – Jeff Goldblum – is alive and well as we speak. Rumours of his death (in an accident on a New Zealand movie set) proved to be greatly exaggerated.

The difference between a reputable news outlet and hordes of twitterers is that the former has a reputation to defend. While the average tweep will simply shrug their shoulders at RTing what they later learn is inaccurate information, misrepresenting the facts is a cardinal sin for the best news organisations. Indeed reputation is the main thing that news outlets have going for them. This inevitably includes annoying and time-consuming things such as checking facts and validating sources before you publish.

With due respect to Mr Jackson, an even more tragic set of events also sparked some similar discussions; the aftermath of the Iranian election. The Economist published an interesting artilce comparing old and new media responses to this entitiled: Twitter 1, CNN 0. Their final comments on this area were:

[…]the much-ballyhooed Twitter swiftly degraded into pointlessness. By deluging threads like Iranelection with cries of support for the protesters, Americans and Britons rendered the site almost useless as a source of information—something that Iran’s government had tried and failed to do. Even at its best the site gave a partial, one-sided view of events. Both Twitter and YouTube are hobbled as sources of news by their clumsy search engines.

Much more impressive were the desk-bound bloggers. Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post, Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic and Robert Mackey of the New York Times waded into a morass of information and pulled out the most useful bits. Their websites turned into a mish-mash of tweets, psephological studies, videos and links to newspaper and television reports. It was not pretty, and some of it turned out to be inaccurate. But it was by far the most comprehensive coverage available in English. The winner of the Iranian protests was neither old media nor new media, but a hybrid of the two.

Aside from the IT person in me noticing the opportunity to increase the value of Twitter via improved text analytics (see my earlier article, Literary calculus?), these types of issues raise concerns in my mind. To balance this slightly negative perspective it is worth noting that both accurate and informed tweets have preceded several business events, notably the recent closure of BI start-up LucidEra.

Also main stream media seem to have swallowed the line that Google has developed its own operating system in Chrome OS (rather than lashing the pre-existing Linux kernel on to its browser); maybe it just makes a better story. Blogs and Twitter were far more incisive in their commentary about this development.

Considering the pros and cons, on balance the author remains something of a doubting Thomas (by name as well as nature) about placing too much reliance on Twitter for news; at least as yet.
Accuracy an Business Intelligence

A balancing act

Some business thoughts leaked into the final paragraph of the Introduction above, but I am interested more in the concept of accuracy as it pertains to one of my core areas of competence – business intelligence. Here there are different views expressed. Some authorities feel that the most important thing in BI is to be quick with information that is good-enough; the time taken to achieve undue precision being the enemy of crisp decision-making. Others insist that small changes can tip finely-balanced decisions one way or another and so precision is paramount. In a way that is undoubtedly familiar to regular readers, I straddle these two opinions. With my dislike for hard-and-fast recipes for success, I feel that circumstances should generally dictate the approach.

There are of course different types of accuracy. There is that which insists that business information reflects actual business events (often more a case for work in front-end business systems rather than BI). There is also that which dictates that BI systems reconcile to the penny to perhaps less functional, but pre-existing scorecards (e.g. the financial results of an organisation).

A number of things can impact accuracy, including, but not limited to: how data has been entered into systems; how that data is transformed by interfaces; differences between terminology and calculation methods in different data sources; misunderstandings by IT people about the meaning of business data; errors in the extract transform and load logic that builds BI solutions; and sometimes even the decisions about how information is portrayed in BI tools themselves. I cover some of these in my previous piece Using BI to drive improvements in data quality.

However, one thing that I think differentiates enterprise BI from departmental BI (or indeed predictive models or other types of analytics), is a greater emphasis on accuracy. If enterprise BI is to aspire to becoming the single version of the truth for an organisation, then much more emphasis needs to be placed on accuracy. For information that is intended to be the yardstick by which a business is measured, good enough may fall short of the mark. This is particularly the case where a series of good enough solutions are merged together; the whole may be even less than the sum of its parts.

A focus on accuracy in BI also achieves something else. It stresses an aspiration to excellence in the BI team. Such aspirations tend to be positive for groups of people in business, just as they are for sporting teams. Not everyone who dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal will do so, but trying to make such dreams a reality generally leads to improved performance. If the central goal of BI is to improve corporate performance, then raising the bar for the BI team’s own performance is a great place to start and aiming for accuracy is a great way to move forward.

A final thought: England went on to beat Australia by precisely 115 runs in the second Test at Lord’s; the final result coming today at precisely 12:42 pm British Summer Time. The accuracy of England’s bowling was a major factor. Maybe there is something to learn here.