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“.

 

 

The 23 Most Influential Business Intelligence Blogs

BetterBuys 23 Most Influential BI Blogs

I was flattered to be included in the recent list of the 23 most influential BI bloggers published by Better Buys. 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.

Citation

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.
 

 

Global Readership

World-wide stats

I quite like WordPress.com’s latest data visualisation tool, which allows you to see the spread of people reading your blog. The data only goes back to February 25th 2012 and presumably a number of hits can have no country attributed to them, but it’s still a nice addition and interesting for me to see the number of different places that readers come from.

Perhaps we’ll gloss over the Mercator Projection and also how annoying and fiddly the WordPress app for iOS is; then things are always harder on iPad – right?
 

Four [Social Media] Failures and a Success

Four Social Media Failures and a Success - with apologies to Mike Newell

Introduction

The internet is full of articles claiming to transform the reader into the Social Media equivalent of Charles Atlas. I have written some of them myself (though hopefully while highlighting that that things are seldom as simple as ticking a set of boxes). Bearing in mind the old adage that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes, here are some thoughts on Social Media failures; the first three are mine and the fourth a failure that seems very widespread. Lest this article becomes too depressing, I will close with a more positive piece of Social Media news.
 
 
Failure 1 – Thinking that you can dip in and out of Social Media

Articles per month

I recently came across Ken Mueller’s blog via a LinkedIn Group (see the segment of New Adventures in WiFi that relates to LinkedIn for some thoughts on groups). In one of his articles he lays out what he sees as the factors that have led to him tripling his blog traffic. Foremost amongst these is consistency:

I’ve been doing this every day for about 2 years now. Some of the growth that I’m seeing is due to just plugging away and forcing myself to blog every day, hopefully creating good, relevant content that people want to read. If I take a day off, I notice a drop in traffic. In fact, I always see a drop in my November traffic because I go away for Thanksgiving to an area with no Internet access.

A quick look at the above chart, which shows the number of articles I have published each month since founding this blog back in November 2008, will reveal that consistency hasn’t been my middle name.

For a variety of reasons, I have had periods where I have sustained a high output of articles (without, it is to be hoped, quantity compromising quality) and periods where my writing has slowed to a barely perceptible trickle. To take an ultra-prosaic example, I started writing this piece while commuting by train and my recent output is highly correlated with my method of transportation.

Now what shall I blog about today? ... Sadly I don't travel too much on the London Tube nowadays - odd the things that you miss

Coming out of some of the troughs in writing, I have sometimes felt that I could simply pick up where I left off. This is probably the case with some niche readers who may visit this site; this is precisely because at least some of my content is directly pertinent to them from time to time. However, after a while, even they may have looked elsewhere for their regular fix of the topics I cover here. Beyond this, there is equally likely to be a second cohort of casual readers who will quickly move on to pastures new if the grass here does not re-grow apace [note to self, I am meant to be restraining myself from overly liberal use of analogies, must try harder!].

Even if an author has written several articles that have proved popular with a number of people; after anything more than a few weeks’ lay-off, it can almost be like starting again from scratch. To employ a too widely-used phrase, you are only as good as your last month’s (or maybe week’s, or maybe day’s) output.

7th November 2002 - Brisbane Cricket Ground, Queensland, Australia. England's Simon Jones ruptures a cruciate ligament. It took him until 11th March 2004 to play for England again.

Disregarding for the moment my own parenthetic advice from the end of the paragraph before last, this feels rather familiar. It seems to be very like what it feels like trying to get fit again after an injury or time away from a sport. It doesn’t really matter if you had attained a certain level of fitness a year ago; what is relevant today is your current level of fitness and the gap between the two. Sometimes recalling just how long it took them to achieve a previous standard can be quite de-motivating to an athlete returning from a break. Once fit, it is a lot easier to stay fit than is is to regain lost fitness. The same applies to audiences and this is why – as Kevin suggests in his article – at least periodic blogging (assuming that it is of a standard) is essential.

My learning here is both to make time to write and also to re-engage with my readers.

[Perhaps ironically this article itself has been in gestation for a few weeks]
 
 
Failure 2 – Assuming that what has worked before will work again

Michael Schumacher's comeback - or how to dim a glistening reputation

I have a specific example in mind here and it relates to a blog post that precedes this one. In turn this goes back to a survey of senior IT people that I carried out predominantly via LinkedIn back in January 2009. This related to their view on the top priorities that they faced in their jobs. Recently I thought that it would be interesting to update this and – no doubt naturally – I also though that I would adopt the same modus operandi; i.e. LinkedIn. I even targeted the same Group – that of CIO Magazine.

linkedin CIO Magazine CIO Magazine forum

Sad to say, while I had dozens of responses last time round, there was been little or no response at all when I attempted to refresh the findings. I have been thinking about why this might be. Of course my musings are pure speculation, but a few ideas come to mind:

  1. The output of the last survey was not of much interest / didn’t tell people anything that they didn’t already know and so it was not worth the effort of replying again.
  2. The people frequenting the CIO Magazine LinkedIn Group back in 2009 were a very different set of people to now. Back then we were in the aftermath of the global banking crisis and perhaps a number of good people had more time on their hands than would normally be the case. Today, while the good times are not exactly rolling, I hope that a large tranche of these people are once more gainfully employed.
  3. It could be (as I have mentioned before) that the wild proliferation of LinkedIn groups means that people’s time and energy is spread over a wider set of these, with less time to devote to specific questions. I have no access to LinkedIn statistics, but would like to bet that while overall Group-based activity has no doubt increased, activity per group may well have decreased.
  4. Variants of the same question may have been asked so often that people have grown tired of answering it.
  5. This could be one of the early signs of general Social Media fatigue.

By way of contrast – and perhaps tapping into my thoughts about variants of the same question having been asked many times before – the same Group has a thread asking members to state in one word what their key challenge is. Although many of the replies are somewhat trite and there is a limit to how much information a single word can convey, it is instructive to think that an innovative approach (and one that requires little time typing a response) has been successful where my attempt to repeat a previous exercise has failed.

My learning here is to think of new ways to approach old material, rather than simply believing that your can repeat past successes.

[UPDATE: I posted on the original CIO Magazine Group threads to change its status to publicly available and started to receive new thoughts on this. Another thought – perhaps people are just more comfortable contributing to discussions that others have already engaged in, rather than being the first to comment?]
 
 
Failure 3 – Ascribing [as yet] unwarranted maturity to Social Media

Starting them young...

I religiously refrain from blogging about current work projects, however the following was 100% in the public domain of its very nature.

I have recently been doing some recruitment and – given both the increasing use of LinkedIn by recruitment firms in their work and that I have a pretty extensive network – thought that it would be worth trying to leverage Social Media to reach out to potential candidates. I did this via a status update, rather than taking the perhaps more obvious path of using the various job sections. My logic here was that I would potentially reach a wider audience in one go than via several postings within pertinent groups. I was also pursuing my recruitment through more traditional channels, so this idea could simply be viewed as a Social Media experiment.

As with any honest scientist, it is important that I state my negative results as well as positive. In this case, though I was contacted by many recruitment agencies, I didn’t get any feedback from actual candidates themselves at all. It could be argued that the failure was in the way I approached the experiment, or the narrowness of the channel that I selected. While both of these are true observations, the whole point of Social Media in business (if there is one) is to make either organisation-to-person, or person-to-person contact ridiculously easy and immediate. Regardless of my level of ineptitude, it wasn’t easy to achieve what I wanted to achieve and I abandoned my experiment after a week or so.

My learning here is to not to refrain from business / Social Media experimentation, but not to expect too much from what is after all an emerging area.
 
 
Failure 4 – Vendor employees not “getting” Social Media

Clueless about Social Media

I have often used this column to talk about my opinion that your choice of Business Intelligence tool is one of the least important factors in a BI/DW project. In the article I link to in the previous sentence, I quote from an interview I gave in which I compare the market for BI tools with that for cars. There is no definitive answer to the question “what is the best car?” and in the same way there is no “best BI tool”. Going further than this, there are many other areas of a BI/DW project which, if done well, will come close to guaranteeing your success regardless of which BI tool you select; but, if done badly, will come close to guaranteeing your failure with any BI tool.

I have also previously contrasted my opinion with the surprisingly large number of discussion threads on LinkedIn that have as a title some variant of “Please, please, please, please, please tell me which is the best BI tool”. I worry about people making quite significant purchasing decisions based on replies posted in an internet forum, but that is perhaps a topic for another day. The particular failure I wanted to highlight is of people posting on these types of thread who work for Big BI Corporation Inc. Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I am not sure that many readers would be swayed by:

I highly recommend Object Explorer Studio+ for all your BI needs

– Joe Blogs

Particularly where one click reveals that Joe Blogs is either employed by the owners of OES+ or a consultant whose company seems to exclusively do OES+ implementations. I hate to single out one vendor, but a particularly egregious reply to one of these “Which BI Tool?” threads that I saw recently consisted of one word:

Microsoft

– Jimmy Blogs

As I say, on the very same thread there were examples of employees of many other big and small BI vendors doing just the same, but most of them at least provided more than one word. In the cause of balance, the same thread also contained some thoughts along the lines of:

I can heartily recommend Oracle BI, OBIEE+ is great because [sales pitch deleted]. If you would like to know more drop me a line at jeff.blogs@oracle.com

– Jeff Blogs

I still wonder whether Jeff got any e-mails. At least he flagged his connection with Oracle, I don’t recall many other vendor employees being honest enough to do the same.

Lest I be accused of bias there were also not too dissimilar postings from people strongly associated with SAP, IBM, QlikTech, Pentaho and a sprinkling of BI start-ups. I should perhaps also note that SAS was not a culprit (at least to date), but then maybe this was because the question was about BI, something they abjure. Microstrategy was also honourably notable for its lack of replies containing naive self-promotion, but perhaps this was simply an oversight.

The above rather bizarre behaviour leads to two questions:

  1. Why do the people making these types of posting think that they will be taken seriously?
  2. Why do the vendors themselves not offer better guidance to their employees about avoiding crass and counter-productive social media advertising of a sort that is more likely to tarnish reputations than enhance sales?

Maybe here again we have an issue of social media maturity. Many people are perhaps struggling as much to get their message across effectively as they did with say the advent of television advertising.

My learning here is that I should curb my rather obsessive compulsion to “out” vendors promoting their own products under the guise of neutral advice-giving.

[not sure that I am going to take much notice of this one however]
 
 
Success – The Accidental Search Engine Optimiser

After covering three of my own failures and one of the BI vendor community (though I am sure the phenomenon is not restricted to BI or even technology vendors), I will close with one of my successes, albeit an unintentional one. I noticed a strange result the other day when looking at the following (I was actually looking for something else believe it or not):

Business Intelligence Expert

I believe that my elevated ranking is probably correlated to recent changes in Google’s algorithms that take greater account of social media. Certainly I don’t recall placing on the first page for any Google search before, let alone rank #1. I suppose that I might have a degree of technical satisfaction if this was as the result of months of assiduous search engine optimisation. However the truth is that the result appears to be the unintended by-product of doing lots of things that I wanted to do anyway, like writing about topics I am interested in and trying to engage with a wide group of people in a number of different ways. In a sense the fact that this achievement was accidental (or at least collateral) makes it more pleasing. Maybe the secret to Social Media success is simply to not worry about it and just get on with expressing yourself.

My learning here is that providing content that is of interest to your target audience and being clear about who you are and what you do is going to be an approach that trumps any more mechanistic approach to SEO.
 
 
Closing thoughts

I believe that I have leant something from my three failures above (and that vendors should learn something from the fourth), but the single success encourages me to persevere. My aim in sharing these experiences is to hopefully also similarly encourage other Social Media ingénues like myself. I hope that I have at least partially achieved this.
 

peterjamesthomas.com syndicated on BeyeNetwork

BeyeNetwork - Global coverage of the business intelligence ecosystem

I have been a member of the Business Intelligence Mecca that is BeyeNetwork.com for quite some time, but as of this week I am delighted to announce that they will be syndicating this blog at: http://www.beyeblogs.com/pthomas/.

Thank you to all at at BeyeNetwork for setting this up.
 

How I write

Drawing Hands, Maurits Cornelis Escher, 1948 - probably a suitable image for rather a self-referential blog article
 
During a conversation with an associate last week, she commented that a lot of effort must go into creating new content for this site and posed the question of where I find the time. Part of the answer is writing in the evenings and at weekends (tick both boxes for this piece), or grabbing moments when I am travelling on business. However, another piece of the jigsaw puzzle is quite different and relates to how I write.

The same person was kind enough to say that she found my writing to be coherent and well-structured. In her mind, this implied an equally structured approach to composition. Sadly nothing could be further from the truth. In general I have an idea (sparked by a conversation on-line, something that happened in the work day, or reading an article) and create a WordPress.com draft as soon as I have time and access to the Internet. Often this is no more than a working title, maybe a line describing my idea and, if this is what inspired me to write, a link to the relevant web-page for future reference.

Sometimes I come back to these ideas as soon as I have time to write more fully. However, on occasion the gestation period is longer, either because other topics have consumed my attention, or because my thoughts have not matured enough to put fingertip to keyboard. At present for example, I have 17 drafts sitting in WordPress, the earliest of which dates back to December 2008 (maybe it will see the light of day at some point).

When I do get round to starting to write, the process is normally very fluid. Most frequently I will substantially finish a piece at a single sitting. The way that I write tends to be first via a stream of consciousness, which results in a large block of text. Next I restructure (I would be lost without cut and paste) and finally I trim (yes I do sometimes reduce the length of my articles), or expand as seems to make sense at the time.

If on re-reading I feel that I have not been clear enough in making my points, I might re-write a section, or add some clarifying comments. Sometimes I will change the order in which paragraphs appear in order to improve the flow. I may even feel that an initial draft is conflating two fairly distinct ideas and thus split the piece into separate articles; but this is very much an exception. If I ignore correcting typos, punctuation and grammar, then I would estimate that over 80% of any given article will be identical to how I first wrote it.

An idiosyncrasy is that I tend to write in the HTML pane of WordPress and often hand-craft things like tables (one reason I moved to WordPress from Blogger was that the latter didn’t – at least at the time – support HTML tables). I guess this is a hang-over from programming days (not that long ago as, alongside my other responsibilities, I was still programming professionally as recently as 2008). This means that I have greater control over how an article appears, but also leads to me using the “preview” feature quite extensively.

I also tend to spend quite a bit of time either finding suitable illustrations or creating them (I use a combination of Visio and Paint Shop Pro, both tools I have used in a work context for years). Sometimes the ideas for images come as I am in the midst of writing (and a brief search, or a quick bit of design work can give my unconscious time to think about the next bit of text), but equally often I get rather swept along by the prose, push on to completing this and then come back to add images as part of the editing process. Either way, nowadays I seem to spend almost as much time thinking about mouse-over text for images as I do coming up with images themselves.

Going back to the conversation that I mention at the beginning. We ended up talking more about how I write. I said that it was normally a relatively rapid process for me. The best analogy that I could come up with was the difference between speaking in your native tongue and translating into a language that you are not 100% fluent in. For me writing about topics in business intelligence, cultural transformation and technology feels very much a natural thing; like speaking English. It’s not something laboured and the words generally flow quickly easily.

Maybe I am just lucky in this respect. Or perhaps the secret of prolific blogging is to write about things that you both know something about and for which you have an ongoing passion.
 
An early blog prototype
 

How to Measure BI Value – Microsoft Services

Microsoft Services

One of the benefits of the WordPress.com platform is that you can get some indication as to which other parts the the web are directing traffic your way. It was via this facility that I came across an article on Microsoft‘s site linking back to my piece Measuring the benefits of Business Intelligence. The title, sub-title and authorship of the Microsoft post is as follows:

How to Measure BI Value

A thorough assessment will help you demonstrate the effectiveness of your BI investments. We offer 8 factors to consider.

By Paula Klein, TechWeb

You can read the article here.

As always, my aim in writing this column is to remain vendor-neutral, however the Microsoft piece is not specifically pushing their BI products (though clearly further information about them is only a click away), but rather offering some general commentary.

Again it is interesting to note the penetration of social media (such as this blog) into mainstream technology business.