I have some form when it comes to getting irritated by quasi-mathematical social media memes (see Facebook squares “puzzle” for example). Facebook, which I find myself using less and less frequently these days, has always been plagued by clickbait articles. Some of these can be rather unsavoury. One that does not have this particular issue, but which more than makes up for this in terms of general annoyance, is the many variants of:
Only a math[s] genius can solve [insert some dumb problem here] – can u?
Life is too short to complain about Facebook content, but this particular virus now seems to have infected LinkedIn (aka MicrosoftedIn) as well. Indeed as LinkedIn’s current “strategy” seems to be to ape what Facebook was doing a few years ago, perhaps this is not too surprising. Nevertheless, back in the day, LinkedIn used to be a reasonably serious site dedicated to networking and exchanging points of view with fellow professionals.
Those days appear to be fading fast, something I find sad. It seems that a number of people agree with me as – at the time of writing – over 9,000 people have viewed a LinkedIn article I briefly penned bemoaning this development. While some of the focus inevitably turned to general scorn being heaped on the new LinekdIn user experience (UX), it seemed that most people are of the same opinion as I am.
However, I suspect that there is little to be done and the folks at LinkedIn probably have their hands full trying to figure out how to address their UX catastrophe. Given this, I thought that if you can’t beat them, join them. So above appears my very own Mathematical meme, maybe it will catch on.
It should be noted that in this case “Less than 1% can do it!!!” is true, in the strictest sense. Unlike the original meme, so is the first piece of text!
After 100s of views on my blog, 1,000s of views on LinkedIn and 10,000s of views on Twitter, it took Neil Raden (@NeilRaden) to point out that in the original image I had the sum running from n=0 as opposed to n=1. The former makes no sense whatsoever. I guess his company is called Hired Brains for a reason! This was meant to be a humorous post, but at least part of the joke is now on me.
Back in July 2012 in A William Tell Moment? I got a little carried away about the potential convergence between tablets and personal computers. Nearly a year later – and with the Surface Pro only becoming available in my native UK last month – I probably know better. The following is therefore a more balanced piece.
It’s been a while since I put finger-tip to keyboard on this web-site. The occurrence which motivated me to do so was the arrival of my first new home computer since 2008 (yes unfortunately dear reader, the author is that much of a Luddite). The time since 2008 has seen a lot of changes in the technology sphere, notably the rise of the tablet (at probably the third time of asking) and the near ubiquity of end user computing. Certainly in response to the former (and maybe with some influence from the latter) my new laptop (if you can so describe a 17.3” desktop replacement) came with Windows 8 pre-installed.
I am obviously several months too late for my review of Microsoft’s latest OS to have much resonance and my brief comments here have no doubt been offered up by other pundits already. What I want to do instead is perhaps try to tie Windows 8 together with some broader trends and explore just how weird and polarised the technology market has become recently. However, some brief initial commentary on Windows 8 is perhaps pertinent.
The main thrust of Windows 8 is for Microsoft to remain relevant, perhaps not so much in its traditional arena of PC computing, but in the newer world of tablet and mobile computing. I’m sure some tablet fans may take issue with my observation, but my opinion is that Windows 8 is trying to do two, potentially incompatible, things: to be relevant to content creators and to content consumers. I am sure there are all sorts of examples of people creating amazing content on their iPads or Android tablets, however perhaps the surprise here is that it is done at all, rather than done well.
Regardless of some content creation doubtless occurring on tablets, I stand by my assertion that they are essentially platforms for the consumption of content; be that web-pages (sometimes masquerading as apps), games, videos, music, or increasingly feedback from the ever increasing range of sensors providing information about everything from the device’s location to its owner’s current heart rate. The content that is consumed on tablets is – in most cases – created on other types of devices; often the quotidian ones which have physical keyboards and pointing devices which allow for precision work.
In the past, the dichotomy between content creators and content consumers has been somewhat masked by them employing similar tools. Of course every content creator is also a content consumer, but it has always (“always” of course being an interesting word when what I probably mean is “since the Internet became mainstream”), been the case that there were significantly more of the latter than the former. What was different historically was that both creators and consumers used the same kit; PCs of some flavour (though maybe the former had better processors and more memory on their machines). The split in roles was evident (if it was evident at all) in computers that were only ever used to surf, do e-mail and write the occasional letter; there were probably an awful lot of these. We had a general purpose computing platform (the PC) which was being under-utilised by the majority of people who owned one.
The eventual adoption of tablets has changed this dynamic. Although of course many tablets have processors that previous generations of PCs could only have dreamed of, their focus is firmly on delivering only those elements of a PCs capabilities which most people use and eschewing those which the majority ignore. As always, specialisation and focus leads to superior execution. The author (no fan of Apple products in general) can confirm that an iPad is much more fit for purpose than a laptop when the purpose is watching a film or TV show on a train or plane. Laptops can of course do this, but they are over-engineered for the task and also pretty bulky if all you want is to watch something. Having played Angry Birds on each of Android, iOS and web-versions on a laptop, the experience is best on the smaller, lighter, touch-based devices.
The reason that the sales of PCs have plummeted while those of tablets soar is not that tablets are better than PCs, nor is it even that they demystify computing in a way that their elder brethren fail to do (more on this later), but simply that tablets are more aligned with what the majority of people want from their computers; as above to be media platforms that allow basic surfing and e-mail. To borrow the phrase from the last paragraph, tablets are more fit for purpose if the purpose is consumption of content.
The flip side of this is what I am currently doing: namely writing this article, sourcing / editing / creating images to illustrate it and cutting some entry-level HTML in the process. I could of course do this on an iPad or Android tablet. However this is much like saying that you can (in extremis) use a foot-pump to re-inflate a car tyre, but why would you if you can make it to a garage / service station and get access to a machine that is dedicated to inflating tyres with greater efficiency. If there was no machine with a keypad to hand, then I might decide to write on an iPad, but it would be a frustrating and sub-optimal experience. PCs are more fit for purpose where the purpose is content creation.
However, we now reach a problem in economics. If we apply the Wikipedia percentages to content creators versus content consumers, then the split is (depending on which side of the fence you place editors) either 1 : 10 or 1 : 100. In either case, someone pitching hardware and software to a content creator is addressing a much smaller part of the marketplace than someone pitching hardware and software to content consumers; aka the mass market. This observation inexorably leads to the types of features and capabilities which will dominate any platforms aimed at general computer users; basically content consumers are king and content creators paupers.
Which returns me to Windows 8. The metro interface is avowedly designed for mobile devices with a touch-based interface. My new machine doesn’t have a touch screen. Why would I need one on a device that supports the much more efficient and precise input provided by a physical keyboard and mouse? Indeed, one of the nice things about my new laptop is its 1920×1080 screen, why would I want to cover this with as many annoying finger smudges as my iPad has when there are much better ways of interacting with the OS which also leave the monitor clean? In fact, on reflection, I guess that the majority of people and not just content creators would prefer a non-smeared screen most of the time.
There seem to be obvious usability snafus in Windows 8 as well. To highlight just one, if you move your mouse (aka finger) to the top right-hand side, one of the “charms” menus appears (I’d really like to know why Microsoft thought “charms” was a great name for this). But what is also at the top right-hand side of any maximised window? The close button of course. I have lost count of how many times I have wanted to close a programme and instead had the charming blue panel appear instead. I spent the first eight years of my career in commercial software development and fully appreciate that there is no such thing as bug-free code, however this type of glitch seems so avoidable that one has to question both Microsoft’s design and testing process.
Anyway, enough on the faults of Windows 8. In time I’ll get used to it just as I did with Windows 95, 97, XP and 7. Just as I have got used to each version of Excel being harder to use than the last for anyone that has a track record with the application. Of course I’ll get used to Excel 2013, what choice do I have? But this leads us into another economic dichotomy. Microsoft don’t need to win me over to Excel, I’m going to put up with whatever silly thing they do to it in the latest version because that’s a lower hurdle than learning another spreadsheet; even assuming that something like Google Docs offers the same functionality. The renewal rates for products like Excel must be 95% plus, this means that a vendor like Microsoft focusses instead on getting new business from people who don’t use their applications. If this means making the application “easier” for new users, then who cares if existing users are inconvenienced, it’s not like they are going to stop using the application.
As I alluded to above, a general claim made for tablets (and for the iPad in particular) is that they demystify computing, making it accessible to “regular people” (as an aside here we have the entire cool dude versus nerd advertising encapsulated in “I’m a Mac, he’s a PC”, something which I think Microsoft are to be lauded for lampooning in their later campaign). Instead I would argue that tablets offer a limited slice of what computers can do (the genius being that it is the slice that 90% or 99% of content consumers seem to want). They don’t make computing easier or more accessible, they make it more limited and sell this as a benefit using words like “elegant”, “stripped-down” or “minimalist”.
Tablets clearly fill a large market need, I use them myself. However, my Window-centred gripe is when I have to buy a product (a PC) whose basic operation is dictated by a function (content consumption) for which the machine is over-engineered, whereas the function for which a PC is perfect (content creation) is symmetrically and even systematically compromised.
As things stand, maybe Microsoft should not be so concerned about losing the mobile and tablet market (perhaps for them it is already too late). Instead it could be argued that they should be more worried about, though a lack of attention to the needs of their core users, forfeiting the PC market which they have dominated for so long and in which their products (pre-Windows 8 at least) were the ones best suited to the job at hand.
The recent launch of the Xbox One (whatever happened to sequential numbering by the way?) was roundly condemned by gamers as focussing too much on the new console being a media hub (again attracting new users) rather than a gaming platform (again ignoring the needs of existing users). At least one cannot accuse Microsoft of being inconsistent, but alienating existing customers is seldom a great long-term strategy for a business.
Let’s glide seamlessly over Samuel Johnson’s original application of this image to comment on women preachers; the 18th Century is certainly a foreign country and I’m rather glad that we now [mostly] do things differently here.
By way of illustration, Wikipedia tends to assume the 90-9-1 rule. 1% of users create content, 9% edit or otherwise modify content, the rest consume.
Although maybe the term PC has become synonymous with Wintel based machines, I include here personal computers running flavours of UNIX such as Mac OS and Linux.
Disclosure #1: As is inevitable for any IT professional, the author has used Microsoft’s enterprise products at many points during his career. As is inevitable for any sentient inhabitant of planet Earth, he has used their more broadly targeted software on a daily basis for longer than he can remember (many of the images on this site were created via the combination of Visio supplemented by the non-MS – and horribly old school – PaintShop Pro). He has no direct holdings in Microsoft, but undoubtedly must have some interest in the company indirectly via pension or investment funds; something that would probably also hold for all of Microsoft’s main competitors.
Disclosure #3: The author can proudly state that he has never owned any Apple product, but does periodically use a corporate iPad and has occasional access to an iPhone owned by someone else (doesn’t everyone?). Rumours that he has three stars at all levels of Angry Birds Space have not been independently verified.
Disclosure #4: The author has neither seen directly, nor further still touched a Surface – though if Microsoft wanted to remedy this situation, he would at the very least guarantee them a thorough (and professionally neutral) review.
It’s somewhat odd to report that I am rather excited by an announcement Redmond’s finest (with apologies to Nintendo America). Like many people I have had a love / hate relationship with the Washington behemoth for more years than I care to remember; having lived through the hype and subsequent let down of every MS O/S since 95. Come to think of it, as my girlfriend suggests, that would be a great slogan: “Microsoft – disappointing expectant millions since 1995!”
Maybe my general take on the firm’s recent output was best summed up by another noted industry commentator:
However, having had to put up with umpteen technology industry commentators sycophantically parroting Cupertino’s “the PC is dead, long live the tablet” mantra over the last few years, it is gratifying to think that there may (and I stress may) soon be a tablet available that is also a proper computer; i.e. one that you can actually do useful things on, rather than fashion accessory cum entertainment centre with a bad browser and support for only for the type of games that you can play equally well on your Facebook page. Please don’t get me wrong, as I mention above, I’m as much a fan of Angry Birds as the next guy, but as a lapsed gamer myself I can hopefully tell the difference between a gaming platform and an amusing diversion.
The ubiquitous iPad has been touted as bringing computing to the non-technically literate masses. Instead it has brought a grossly watered down ability to conspicuously consume at the expense of any support for creative activities. In my opinion, the oft repeated phrase that “there’s an app for that” tends only to work when “that” is a pretty narrow range of activities. I’m on my iPad; I want to update my Facebook status – tick; I want to upload an un-edited photo I just took – tick (on some models at least); I want to tweet something (maybe even including a URL I have copied from elsewhere) – tick (fiddly as this might be); I want to write a lightly formatted blog post without too many typos and which includes a couple of images I have either lightly-edited, or created from scratch – um…
That’s where most types of tablet seem to hit their limit, Android as well as iOS (and undoubtedly Amazon’s offering as well); casual surfing (be it browser or other app based), checking mail, watching a movie, working out what street I am on, simple social medial interactions. These things are all OK and all are light on content creation. Anything else (even a lengthy e-mail – something I specialise in) quickly becomes a chore. Pointedly, all of the things that I have mentioned working well on tablets, also work at least to close to as well on a decent sized smart ‘phone, which also has the benefit of actually being portable and also (at least in most cases) of being a ‘phone.
So, given my zeitgeist-busting lack of whelmedness with tablets, where does that leave Ballmer’s latest offering. Well, let’s discount the ARM-based, “me too” version (with apologies to my fellow inhabitants of Cambridge; East Anglia, not Massachusetts) and focus on the Ivy Bridge-powered Surface Pro. This is (as far as can be discerned from the [limited] information that Redmond have thusfar divulged) where the real attention will inevitably focus. As the BBC’s (oft lampooned) technology correspondent states:
“At one small business this week – my excellent local optician – I learned that the owner plans to replace all his PCs with Surface tablets when they come out. Why not go straight to iPads, I wondered – only to learn that just about every ophthalmic application was Windows-based.”
I.e. there are an awful lot of proper, grown-up applications out there which only work on the dreadfully uncool WinTel platform. Indeed, outside of the creative industries (like other parts of industry can’t be creative?) and parts of science that rely upon tuned-up versions of graphical software that emanates essentially from the former (or which were provided “free” back in the day by those awfully nice Apple chaps), most business-focussed software (that is not already web-based) is WinTel based.
The idea of a proper computer that can (as far as we can tell at present) support all of the above, plus coming in a conveniently portable tablet-like package; but – crucially – with adult input devices like (shock-horror) a keyboard and track-pad and (even more shock and even more horror) a DisplayPort port for those tasks (like many of mine) where at 10” monitor is way too small and (Nightmare on Elm Street levels of horror) a USB 3.0 port; sounds awfully like the tablet concept coming of age (or, for those with an historical bent, fulfilling the vision that Bill Gates originally outlined for the device, long before the late Steve Jobs imbued it with his irreplaceable and inimitable coolness).
Many much wiser commentators than me have stated that the Surface will live or die based on the quality and extent of the app ecosystem it develops around it. For me the Pro has all the apps you could ever need, the Windows ones that people use to actually do things.
Of course the devil is in those (perhaps worryingly as yet undisclosed) details. What will the precise specs of the Surface Pro processor and RAM be? What is the screen resolution? How long will the battery last? How good a keyboard substitute will the Type Cover be in practice? Why on Earth does the RT come with Office and the machine set up to run it properly apparently doesn’t? Will Metro be pleasurable to use in those (infrequent) moments when all you actually want is an entertainment platform? These will all become clear in time no doubt, and there is obviously more than enough scope for Microsoft to disappoint me again. However, at present I am holding on to the glimmer of hope that this time they have got it right. If they have, the Surface could be very good indeed. As Don Maclean never sang:
So bye bye to my Pad with an ‘i’
Get a Surface in to yer place
Won’t you give it a try
Those Angry Birds may may just have to fly
Singing this could be the tablet I’d buy
Back in June 2009, I wrote an article entitled A first for me. In this I described meeting up with Seth Grimes (@SethGrimes), an acknowledged expert in analytics and someone I had initially “met” via Twitter.com.
I have vastly expanded my network of international contacts through social media interactions such as these. Indeed I am slated to meet up with a few other people during November; a month in which I have a couple of slots speaking at BI/DW conferences (IRM later this week and Obis Omni towards the end of the month).
The bizintelligence.tv format seems to be an interesting one, with key points in BI discussed in a focussed and punchy manner (not an approach that I am generally associated with) and a target audience of busy senior IT managers. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is also notable that the more foresighted of corporations are now taking social media seriously and getting quite good at engaging without any trace of hard selling; something that perhaps compromised the earlier efforts of some organisations in this area (for the avoidance of doubt, this is a general comment and not one levelled at Microsoft).
Bruno and I touched on a number of areas including, driving improvements in data quality, measuring the value of BI programmes, using historical data to justify BI investments (something that I am overdue writing about – UPDATE: now remedied here) and the cultural change aspect of BI. I am looking forward to seeing the results. Watch this space and in the meantime, take a look at some of the earlier interviews that Bruno has conducted.
Other video and audio interviews that I have recorded:
Earlier this week I attended the inaugural The Cloud Circle Forum in London. The Cloud Circle is the UK’s first independent Business and IT focused Cloud Computing Community. It is also the sister community of the Business Intelligence-focussed Obis Omni, an organisation with whom I have a longstanding (though I hasten to add, non-contractual) relationship (a list of Obis Omni seminars at which I have presented appears here, and you can also find some of my articles syndicated on their site).
The afternoon programme saw delegates split into two work-streams, one focussed on strategy and management, the other on technology. Work-related pressures meant that I was unable to attend this part of the day, which was a shame as several bits of the morning speeches were helpful.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that virtually every organisiation and individual I have mentioned so far has a Twitter account and the additional fact that there were hundreds of delegates at the forum, there was virtually no Twitter coverage. Maybe we can get too carried away with the all pervasiveness of social media sometimes. There are clearly some avenues of professional life where its influence is yet to be fully felt; even IT conferences!
I tweeted some commentary on the InTechnology presentation and the stream may be viewed here while it persists. However by the time that Richard Hall stood up to speak, a combination of a lack of reception (the auditorium was in the basement) and issues with mobile Twitter on my hand-held brought this activity to a halt.
The morning presentations
I don’t want to steal the thunder from any of the speakers and so this article does not cover the content of their presentations in any detail. Instead my aim is to highlight a few points and provide a flavour of their talks.
The InTechnology talk was interesting in parts, in particular their focus on the savings to be achieved in cloud-based telephony alone. One of their speakers also suggested that the benefits of Cloud Computing were potentially reduced if an organisation worked with more than one vendor, which is clearly an aspect to consider.
Their presentations were topped and tailed by two segments of a Cloud Computing-related spoof of The Apprentice. Clearly some money had gone into this and the results were either hilarious or somewhat ill-advised depending on your personal taste. I have to admit to falling closer to the latter camp. While some delegates seemed to enjoy the fun of the fair, I felt the video distracted somewhat from InTechnology’s core message.
I billed Richard Hall as a Cloud Computing evangelist and certainly his tub-thumping upped the tempo. He made some interesting points, which included his assertion that the proprietors of cloud server farms were employing cutting edge technology that was not currently commercially available and might never be. The point here was that cloud providers were becoming true experts in the area with capabilities far beyond normal organisations. This segued with his prediction that there would be only four, or at most five, mega cloud vendors in the future.
Richard did have one slide focusing on the potential drawbacks (or current short-comings) of Cloud Computing, but you could tell his heart wasn’t really in it. One sensed that Richard never met a cloud he didn’t like, even referring to his only personal Road to Damascus during his talk. However one very valid point he made was that the legal agreements and licensing arrangements for Cloud Computing were significantly lagging the flexibility of the technology itself. This chimes with my own experience of the area.
The real-life case studies of cloud-based success were perhaps more telling than the earlier sessions. Bert Craven, Enterprise Architect at EasyJet, spoke about how his company had been moving selected elements of their IT assets to the cloud. Interestingly, while the original plan had been to keep some critical applications (the sort for which 99.9% availability is not good enough) in-house, one of these was now in the process of becoming cloud-based.
Richard Prodger, Technical Director of AWS, spoke about the work that his company had been doing with the RNLI – a charity that runs volunteer lifeboats around the coasts of Britain. The specific project was to provide fishermen with devices that would automatically alert the RNLI control centre if they fell overboard and then provide accurate positioning information enabling a faster rescue and thus one that would be more likely to result in success. Richard shared stories of several fishermen who were alive today thanks to the system. Here the cloud was not the original vehicle, but something that was subsequently employed to scale up the service.
Both case studies used Windows Azure as a component. I have not used this toolset, nor have I been briefed on it and so will refrain from any comment beyond stating that both Bert and Richard seemed happy with its capabilities; particularly in securely exposing internal systems to external web-users.
Some thoughts on what I heard and saw
When multiple presenters state that there is no agreed definition of the central subject matter of a seminar and then proceed to provide slightly different takes on this, you know that you are dealing with an emerging technology. That is not to deny the obvious potential of the area, but a degree of maturation is still necessary in this part of the industry before – in Richard Hall’s words – Cloud Computing becomes the future of IT.
There was more than one elephant in the room. First of which is bandwidth, which is relatively plentiful and relatively cheap in many parts of the world, but equally has neither trait in many others. This will be of concern to a lot of global organisations. Of course this is a problem that will undoubtedly go away in time, but it may dog true enterprise implementations of misison-critical Cloud Computing for some years yet.
Security remains a concern, it may well be true that the experts in Cloud Computing will be an order of magnitude more careful and competent about handling their customers’ data than many internal IT departments. However the point is that they are already handling the data of many customers and one error, or one act of malfeasance by an employee, could have a major impact. You may well be safer flying than driving your own car, but when a plane crashes, people tend to notice.
Future consolidation in Cloud Computing was mentioned by a number of speakers. Although this issue is not solely the preserve of cloud technology, it does raise some concerns about betting on the right horse. As has been seen in many areas of industry, the titans of today may be the minnows of tomorrow. When you are trusting an external organisation with your transactions, it helps to know for certain (or as close as you can get to it) that they will be around in five years’ time.
One of the central pitches of Cloud Computing is “let us look after the heavy lifting and your people can focus on more value-added activities”. While there are certainly economies to be seized in this area, the Cloud Computing industry may be doing itself a disservice by stating that customers can effectively stop worrying about functions moved to the cloud. In my mind a lot of care and attention will need to be put into managing relationships with cloud vendors and into integrating cloud-based systems with the rest of the internal IT landscape (or with other cloud-based systems). It may be that this type of work costs a lot less than the internal alternative, but it is nevertheless invidious to suggest that no work at all is required. This line of attack is reminiscent of some of the turn of the millennium sales pitches of ERP vendors, not all of which turned out to be well-founded.
In finishing this slightly downbeat section (and before a more optimistic coda), I’ll return to the commercial issues that Richard Hall referenced. He claimed – correctly in my opinion – that a major benefit of cloud-based solutions was not only that they scaled-up, but that they scaled-down. The “knob” could be adjusted in either direction according to an organisation’s needs. The problem here is that many parts of the Cloud Computing industry still seem wedded to multi-year fixed licensing deals with little commercial scope to scale either up or down without renegotiating the contract. What is technologically feasible may not be contractually pain-free. In the same vein more flexible termination clauses and guaranteed portability of data from one vendor to another need to be sorted out before Cloud Computing is fully embraced by many organisations.
On a more positive note, the above issues are maybe the typical growth pains of a nascent industry. No doubt solutions to them will be knocked into shape in the coming years. It is always tempting fate to predict the future with too much accuracy, but at this point it seems certain that Cloud Computing will play an increasingly important role in the IT landscapes of tomorrow. If nothing else this is attested to by the number of delegates attending Tuesday’s meeting.
The Cloud Circle are to be commended for getting out in front of this important issue and I hope that their work will better disseminate understanding of what is likely to become and important area and enable a wider range of organisations to begin to take advantage of it.
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.
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.
My blog attempts to stay vendor-neutral, but much of Bruno’s article is also in the same vein; aside from the banner appearing at the top of course. It is noteworthy how many of the big players are realising that engaging with the on-line community in a sotto voce manner is probably worth much more than a fortissimo sales pitch. This approach was also notable in another output from the BI stable at Microsoft; Nic Smith’s “History of Business Intelligence” , which I reviewed in March 2009. However, aside from these comments I’ll focus more on what Bruno says than on who he works for; and what he says is interesting.
His main thesis is that good BI can “sharpen competitive skills […] turning competitive insights into new ways to do business”. I think that it is intriguing how some organisations, ideally having already got their internal BI working well, are now looking to squeeze even further value out of their BI platform by incorporating more outward-looking information; information relating to their markets, their customers and their competitors. This was the tenth BI trend I predicted in another article from March 2009. However, I can’t really claim to be all that prescient as this development seems pretty common-sensical to me.
Setting the bar higher
Competition between companies is generally seen as a positive thing – one reason that there is so much focus on anti-trust laws at present. Competition makes the companies involved in it (or at least those that survive) healthier, their products more attuned to customer needs, their services more apt. It also tends to deliver better value and choice to customers and thus in aggregate drives overall economic well-being (though of course it can also generate losers).
In one of my my earliest blog articles, Business Intelligence and Transparency, I argued that good BI could also drive healthy internal competition by making the performance of different teams and individuals more accessible and comparable (not least to the teams and individuals themselves). My suggestion was that this would in turn drive a focus on relative performance, rather than settling for absolute performance. The latter can lead to complacency, the former ensures that the bar is always reset a little higher. Although this might seem potentially divisive at first, my experience of it in operation was that it led to a very positive corporate culture.
Although organisations in competition with each other are unlikely to share benchmarks in the same way as sub-sections of a single organisation, it is often possible to glean information from customers, industry associations, market research companies, or even the published accounts of other firms. Blended with internal data, this type of information can form a powerful combination; though accuracy is something that needs to be born in mind even more than with data that is subject to internal governance.
A new source of competitive advantage
Bruno’s suggestion is that the way that companies leverage commonly available information (say Governmental statistics) and combine this with their own numbers is in itself a source of competitive advantage. I think that there is something important here. One of the plaudits laid at the feet of retail behemonth Wal Mart is that it is great at leveraging the masses of data collected in its stores and using this in creative ways; ways that some of its competition cannot master to the same degree.
In recent decades a lot of organisations have attempted to define their core competencies and then stick to these. Maybe a competency in generating meaningful information from both internal and external sources and then – crucially – using this to drive different behaviours, is something that no self-respecting company should be without in the 2010s.
Inspiration can come from many places. For me it is often via making a connection between two separate areas. I wrote about this phenomenon in my earlier artcile, Synthesis.
A couple of inspiration-related events have led me to pen this piece today and, as a great man once said:
When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.
The first occurrence was an article on Jeff Shuey’s blog entitled Surely, you must be joking. This borrows from the title of Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman‘s book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (as edited by his friend and co-drummer Ralph Leighton). I have found Feynman to be an inspirational character since I first saw him interviewed in depth on the BBC’s science magazine programme, Horizon. Some footage of this interview appears in the BBC’s archives, and may be viewed here. It is well worth a look.
I happen to have recently referenced Feynman, albeit rather obliquely, in a review of my bogging experiences, New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 1: Blogging. I have been delighted to receive some messages from people saying that this article had prompted them to take up blogging themselves. There can surely be no greater compliment paid in social media and I am honoured to receive it.
The idea for Jeff’s article came both from Microsoft featuring Feynman’s work on its Project Tuva site (this doesn’t seem to work for me in Chrome, though it’s fine in IE8 – maybe I’ll keep quiet about this in case the European Commission is listening in) and a subsequent exchange of tweets and links that we shared on twitter.com. Jeff’s handle is @jshuey if you would like to follow him. Also check out Jeff’s article to learn more about how a remarkable human being has influenced both him and Project Tuva.
and Thing Two
The second event relates to the traditional American diner that is round the corner from where I live. I appreciate that I live in London, but nevertheless I do have a traditional American diner round the corner. It is even owned by a Packers fan from Wisconsin. Lauren is one of the people who regularly works there and she has a talent for drawing in chocolate – no you haven’t misread that, she draws in chocolate, specifically on the plate that holds the diner’s very pleasant flourless chocolate cake.
Mermaids have been a favourite theme for Lauren, but more recently she has moved on to more ambitious works. The first was Michael Jackson for obvious reasons. This was followed by Barak Obama. The other day I suggested that, if she was working her way through American icons, then the next obvious person would be Marilyn Monroe. Lauren liked this idea and when I visited this morning to get my customary cup of coffee (skinny cappuccino rather than black and hot sadly) her lastest work greeted me:
I’m really happy that my input has played a small part in two creative acts. This is particularly the case as I am normally acknowledging the inspiration that I have drawn from other people.
This sort of give and take of ideas has of course been happening during the entire course of human history. Clearly, even if I live to be 100, I could never hope to be as inspirational or influential as Richard Feynman. However it is both gratifying and humbling to be able to take part in the cycle of human interaction, no matter how minor my role. Maybe these two small recent examples are further evidence that the pace is increasing.
This is a proverb with quite some history to it. Indeed its lineage has been traced to 13th Century France in: mauvés ovriers ne trovera ja bon hostill (les mauvais ouvriers ne trouveront jamais un bon outil being a rendition in more contemporary French). To me this timeless observation is applicable to present-day Business Intelligence projects. Browsing through on-line forums, it is all too typical to see discussions that start “What is the best BI software available on the market?”, “Who are the leaders in SaaS BI?” and (rather poignantly in my opinion) “Please help me to pick the best technology for a dashboard.” I feel that these are all rather missing the point. Before I explain why, I am going to offer another of my sporting analogies, which I believe is pertinent. Indeed sporting performace is an area to which the aphorism appearing in the title is frequently applied.
If you would like to skip the sporting analogy and cut to the chase, please click here.
The importance of having the right shoes
Rock climbing is a sport that certainly has its share of machismo; any climbing magazine or web-site will feature images of testosterone-infused youths whose improbable physiques (often displayed to full advantage by the de rigueur absence of any torso-encumbering clothing) propel them to the top of equally improbable climbs.
Given this, many commentators have noted the irony of climbing being conducted by people wearing the equivalent of rubber-covered ballet slippers. The fact that one of the most iconic rock climbing shoes of all time was a fetching shade of pink merely adds piquancy to this observation. Examples of these, the classic FiveTen Anasazi Lace-ups, are featured in the following photo of top British climber, Steve McClure (yes it is the right way up).
When I started rock climbing, my first pair of shoes were Zephyrs from Spanish climbing firm Boreal. They looked something like this:
Although it might not be apparent from the above image, these are intended to be comfortable shoes. Ones to be worn by more experienced climbers on long mountain days, or suitable for beginners, like myself at the time, on shorter climbs. Although not exactly cheap, they are not prohibitively expensive and the rubber on the soles is quite hard-wearing as well.
The Zephyrs worked well for me, but inevitably over time you begin to notice the shoes worn by better climbers at the crag or at the wall. You also cannot fail to miss the much sexier shoes worn by professional climbers in films, climbing magazine articles and (no coincidence here) advertisements. These other shoes also cost more (again no coincidence) and promise better performance. When you are looking to get better at something, it is tempting to take any advantage that you can get. Also, perhaps especially when you are looking to break into a new area, there is some pressure to conform, to look like the “in-crowd”, maybe even simply to distance yourself from the beginner that you were only a few months previously.
This is very shallow behaviour of course, but it is also the rock on which the advertising industry is founded. I wanted to get better as a climber, but would have to admit that other, less noble, motives also drove me to wanting to purchase new rock shoes.
The Galileos shown above are made by US company FiveTen and are representative of the type of shoes that I have worn for most my climbing career. FiveTen shoes have been worn by many top climbers over the years (though there have recently been some quite high-profile defections to start-up brand Evolv, who can never seem to decide whether to append a final ‘e’ to their name or not).
Amongst other things, FiveTens are noted for the stickiness of their rubber, which is provided by an organisation called Stealth Rubber and appears on no other rock climbing shoes. Generally the greater the adhesion between your foot and the rock, the greater the force that you can bring to bear on it to drive yourself upwards. Also it helps to have confidence that your foot has a good chance of staying in place, no matter how glassy the rock may be (and no matter how long the fall may be should this not happen). I have worn FiveTen shoes on all of my hardest climbs (none of which have actually been very hard in the grand scheme of things sad to say).
Nevertheless, with what I admit was rather a sense of guilt, I have recently embarked on a dalliance with another rock shoe manufacturer, La Sportiva of Italy. The Sportiva Solutions which are shown above are both the most expensive rock shoes I have ever owned and the most technical. If NASA made a rock shoe, they would probably not be a million miles away from the Solutions. The radical nature of their design can perhaps best be appreciated in three dimensions and you can do this by clicking on the above image.
The Solutions are very, very good rock shoes. I recently had the opportunity to carry out a before and after comparison on the following climb, A Miller’s Tale:
My partner, who appears in the photo (incidentally sporting FiveTen shoes), climbed this on her second go. By contrast, I had many fruitless attempts wearing my own pair of FiveTens (that, to be fair to FiveTen, were much less technical than the Galileo’s above and were also probably past the end of their useful life). I frequently found my feet skittering off of the highly polished limestone, which resulted in me rapidly returning to terra firma.
A couple of weeks later, equipped with my shiny new Sportivas, my feet did not slip once. Of course the perfect end to this story would have been to say that I then climbed the problem (for an explanation of why some types of climbs are called problems see my earlier article Perseverance). Sadly, though I made much more progress during my second session, I need to go back to finally tick it off of my list.
So here surely is an example of the tool making a difference, or is it? My partner had climbed A Miller’s Tale quite happily without having the advantage of my new footwear. She is 5’3″ (160cm) compared to my 5’11” (180cm) and the taller you are the easier it is to reach the next hold. Strength is a factor in climbing and I am also stronger in absolute terms than she is. The reason that she succeeded where I failed is simply that she is a better climber than I am. It is an oft-repeated truism in the climbing world that many females have better techniques than men. This, together with the “unfair” advantage of smaller fingers, is the excuse often offered by muscle-bound men who fail to complete a climb that a female then dances her way up. However in my partner’s case, she is also very strong, with her power-to-weight ratio being the key factor. You don’t need to lift massive weights in climbing, just your own body.
So I didn’t really need better rock shoes to prevent my feet from slipping. If I got my body into a better balanced position, then this would have had the same impact. Equally, if my abdominal muscles were stronger, I could have squeezed my feet harder onto the rock, increasing their adhesion (this type of strength, known as core strength for obvious reasons, is crucial to progressing in many types of climbing). What the Solutions did was not to make me a better climber, but to make up for some of my inadequacies. In this way, by allowing me the luxury of not focussing on increasing my strength or improving my technique, you could even argue that they might be bad for my climbing in the long run. I probably protest too much in this last comment, but hopefully the reader can appreciate the point that I am trying to make.
In order to become a better climber I need to do lots of things. I need to strengthen the tendons in my fingers (or at least in nine of them as I ruptured the tendon in my right ring finger playing rugby years ago) so that I can hold on to smaller edges and grasp larger ones for longer. I need to develop my abdominal muscles to hold me onto the rock face better and put more pressure on my feet; particularly when the climb is overhanging. I need to build up muscles in my back, shoulders and arms to be able to move more assuredly between holds that are widely spaced. I must work on my endurance, so that I do not fail climbs because I am worn out by a long series of lower moves. Finally I need to improve my technique: making my footwork more precise; paying more attention to the shape of my body and how this affects my centre of gravity and the purchase I have on holds; getting more comfortable with the tricks of the trade such as heel- and toe-hooks; learning when to be aggressive in my climbing and when to be slow and deliberate; and finally better visualising how my body fits against the rock and the best way to flow economically from one position to the next.
If I can get better in all of these areas, then maybe I will have earned my new technical rock shoes and I will be able to take advantage of the benefits that they offer. Having the right shoes can undoubtedly improve your climbing, but it is no substitute for focussing on the long list in the previous paragraph. There is no real short-cut to becoming a better climber, it just takes an awful lot of work.
A final thing to add in this section is that the Solutions offer advantages to the climber on certain types of climbs. On any overhanging, pocketed rock, they are brilliant. But the way that they shape your foot into a down-turned claw would be a positive disadvantage when trying to pad up a slab. In this second scenario, something like my worn out FiveTens (now sadly consigned to the rubbish tip) would be the tool of choice. It is important to realise that the right tool is often dictated by the task in hand and one that excels in area A may be an also-ran in area B.
Lest it be thought that the above manufacturers play only in narrow niches, I should explain that each of Boreal, FiveTen and La Sportiva produce a wide range of rock shoes catering to virtuially every type of climber from the neophyte to the world’s best.
If you think that the pound dollar rates are rather strange in the above exhibits, then a few things are at play. Some are genuine differences, but others are because they are historical rates. for example, I struggled to find a US web-site that still sells Boreal Zephyrs.
If you are interested in finding out more about my adventures in rock climbing, then take a look at my partner’s blog.
The role of technology in Business Intelligence
I hope that I have established that at least in the world of rock climbing, the technology that you have at your disposal is only one of many factors necessary for success; indeed it is some way from being the most important factor.
Having really poor, or worn out, rock shoes can dent your confidence and even get you into bad habits (such as not using your feet enough). Having really good rock shoes can bring some incremental benefits, but these are not as great as those to be gained by training and experience. Most of the technologically-related benefits will be realised by having reasonably good and reasonably new shoes.
While the level of a professional rock climber’s performance will be undoubtedly be improved by using the best equipment available, a bad climber with $150 rock shoes will still be a bad climber (note this is not intended to be a self-referential comment).
Determine what information is necessary to drive key business decisions.
Understand the various data sources that are available and how they relate to each other.
Transform the data to meet the information needs.
Manage the embedding of BI in the corporate culture.
Obviously good BI technology has a role to play across all of these areas, but it is not the primary concern in any of them. Let us consider what is often one of the most difficult areas to get right, embedding BI in an organisation’s DNA. What is the role of the BI tool here?
Well if you want people to actually use the BI system, it helps if the way that the BI technology operates is not a hindrance to this. Ideally the ease-of-use and intuitiveness of the BI technology deployed should be a plus point for you. However, if you have the ultimate in BI technology, but your BI system does not highlight areas that business people are interested in, does not provide information that influences actual decision-making, or contains numbers that are inaccurate, out-of-date, or unreconciled, then it will not be used. I put this a little more succinctly in a recent article: Using multiple business intelligence tools in an implementation – Part II (an inspired title I realise), which I finished by saying:
If your systems do not have credibility with your users, then all is already lost and no amount of flashy functionality will save you.
Similar points can be made about all of the other pillars. Great BI technology should be the icing on your BI cake, not one of the main ingredients.
The historical perspective
Ajay Ohri from the DecisionStats web-site recently interviewed me in some depth about a range of issues. He specifically asked me about what differentiated the various BI tools and I reproduce my reply here:
The really important question in BI is not which tool is best, but how to make BI projects successful. While many an unsuccessful BI manager may blame the tool or its vendor, this is not where the real issues lie. I firmly believe that successful BI rests on four mutually reinforcing pillars: understand the questions the business needs to answer, understand the data available, transform the data to meet the business needs and embed the use of BI in the organisation’s culture. If you get these things right then you can be successful with almost any of the excellent BI tools available in the marketplace. If you get any one of them wrong, then using the paragon of BI tools is not going to offer you salvation.
I think about BI tools in the same way as I do the car market. Not so many years ago there were major differences between manufacturers. The Japanese offered ultimate reliability, but maybe didn’t often engage the spirit. The Germans prided themselves on engineering excellence, slanted either in the direction of performance or luxury, but were not quite as dependable as the Japanese. The Italians offered out-and-out romance and theatre, with mechanical integrity an afterthought. The French seemed to think that bizarrely shaped cars with wheels as thin as dinner plates were the way forward, but at least they were distinctive. The Swedes majored on a mixture of safety and aerospace cachet, but sometimes struggled to shift their image of being boring. The Americans were still in the middle of their love affair with the large and the rugged, at the expense of convenience and value-for-money. Stereotypically, my fellow-countrymen majored on agricultural charm, or wooden-panelled nostalgia, but struggled with the demands of electronics.
Nowadays, the quality and reliability of cars are much closer to each other. Most manufacturers have products with similar features and performance and economy ratings. If we take financial issues to one side, differences are more likely to related to design, or how people perceive a brand. Today the quality of a Ford is not far behind that of a Toyota. The styling of a Honda can be as dramatic as an Alfa Romeo. Lexus and Audi are playing in areas previously the preserve of BMW and Mercedes and so on. To me this is also where the market for BI tools is at present. It is relatively mature and the differences between product sets are less than before.
Of course this doesn’t mean that the BI field will not be shaken up by some new technology or approach (in-memory BI or SaaS come to mind). This would be the equivalent of the impact that the first hybrid cars had on the auto market. However, from the point of view of implementations, most BI tools will do at least an adequate job and picking one should not be your primary concern in a BI project.
If you are interested, you can read the full interview here.
The current reality
As my comments to Ajay suggest, maybe in past times there were greater differences between BI vendors and the tools that they supplied. One benefit of the massive consolidation that has occurred in recent years is that the five biggest players: IBM/Cognos, Oracle/Hyperion, SAP/BusinessObjects, Microsoft and (the as yet still independent) SAS all have product portfolios that are both wide and deep. If there is something that you want your BI tool to do, it is likely that any of these organisations can provide you with the software; assuming that your wallet allows it. Both the functionality and scope of offerings from smaller vendors operating in the BI arena have also increased greatly in recent times. Finding a technology that fits your specific needs for functionality, ease-of-use, scalability and reliability should not be a problem.
This general landscape is one against which it is interesting to view the recent acquisition of business analytics firm SPSS by IBM. According to Reuters, IBM’s motivations are as follows:
IBM plans to buy business analytics company SPSS Inc for $1.2 billion in cash to better compete with Oracle Corp and SAP AG in the growing field of business intelligence
As an aside, should both Microsoft and SAS be worried that they are omitted from this list?
Whatever the corporate logic for IBM, to me this is simply more evidence that BI technology is becoming a utility (it should however be noted that this is not the same as BI itself becoming a utility). I believe that this trend will lead to a greater focus on the use of BI technology as part of broad-based BI programmes that drive business value. Though BI has the potential of releasing massive benefits for organisations, the track record has been somewhat patchy. Hopefully as people start to worry less about BI technology and more about the factors that really drive success in BI programmes, this will begin to change.
As with any technical innovation over the centuries, it is only when the technology itself becomes invisible that the real benefits flow.
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