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 bizintelligence.tv 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:

 

Another social media-inspired meeting

Lights, camera, action!

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).

Another person that I became a virtual acquaintance of via social media is Bruna Aziza (@brunoaziza), Worldwide Strategy Lead for Business Intelligence at Microsoft. I originally “met” Bruno via LinkedIn.com and then also connected on Twitter.com. Later Bruno asked me for my thoughts on his article, Use Business Intelligence To Compete More Effectively, and I turned these into a blog post called BI and competition.

bizintelligence.tv - by Bruno Aziza of Microsoft

We have kept in touch since and last week Bruno asked me to be interviewed on the bizintelligence.tv channel that he is setting up. It was good to meet in person and I thought that we had some interesting discussions. Though I have done video and audio interviews before with organisations like IBM Cognos, Informatica, Computing Magazine and SmartDataCollective (see the foot of this article for links), these were mostly a while back and so it was interesting to be in front of a camera again.

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:

 

The Cloud Circle Forum – London

The Cloud Circle

Introduction

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).

There was a full programme with the morning being taken up by plenary presentations from Harrogate’s InTechnology (@InTechnology) and CloudOrigin (aka Cloud Computing evangelist Richard Hall – @CloudOrigin), followed by two Windows Azure case studies; one from EasyJet and one from Active Web Solutions (@AWSIpswich) for the Royal National Lifeboat Association – these were hosted by Microsoft themselves.

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.

Who you gonna call?

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

Note: 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.

 
InTechnology

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.
 
 
Cloud-origin

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.
 
 

Microsoft easyJet.com Active Web Solutions

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.
 

Informatica interview

While spring cleaning at home at the weekend, I came across a DVD of an interview I did for Informatica back in March 2005. This is still accessible on the Informatica web-site and appears in my video library, but I thought that I had lost my copy of the original.

Having made this discovery, I added it to my selection of videos on YouTube.com.
 

 
In the interview I stress the need for consistency in management information; the dynamics of the Insurance industry and the business value added by Business Intelligence in a pan-European insurance organisation.
 


 
Disclosure – Part I: In the work I refer to above, I leveraged Infomatica’s toolset (PowerCentre) alongside software from Oracle (RDBMS and PL/SQL), IBM Cognos (PowerPlay and ReportStudio) and Microsoft (.NET). I have used tools from other vendors in other projects. While there is clearly a promotional sub-text to the video, it is not a product endorsement and I believe that my comments are generally applicable to any business intelligence / data warehousing project.
 
Disclosure – Part II: I have already had it pointed out to me – by @ocdqblog and others – that the braces (suspenders if you are from the US; suspenders having quite a different connotation in the UK) were perhaps something of a fashion faux pas. My American partner has long since despaired of my British approach to “co-ordination” of patterns. You may be glad to know that I no longer own the offending item.
 

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.
 

Independent Analysts and Social Media – a marriage made in heaven

Oracle EPM and BI Merv Adrian - IT Market Strategies for Suppliers

I have been a regular visitor to Merv Adrian’s excellent blog since just after its inception and have got to know Merv virtually via twitter (@merv) and other channels. I recently read his article : Oracle Ups EPM Ante, which covered Oracle’s latest progress in integrating its various in-house and acquired technologies in the Enterprise Performance Management and Business Intelligence arenas.

The article is clearly written and helpful, I recommend you take a look if these areas impinge upon you. One section caught my attention (my emphasis):

Finally, Oracle has long had a sizable base in government, and its new Hyperion Public Sector Planning and Budgeting app suite continues the integration theme, tapping its ERP apps (both Oracle E-Business Suite [EBS] and PeopleSoft ERP) for bidirectional feeds.

My current responsibilities include EPM, BI and the third Oracle ERP product, JD Edwards. I don’t work in the public sector, but was nevertheless interested in the concept of how and whether JDE fitted into the above scenario. I posted a comment and within a few hours Merv replied, having spoken to his senior Oracle contacts. The reply was from a vendor-neutral source, but based on information “straight from the horse’s mouth”. It is illuminating to ponder how I could have got a credible answer to this type of question any quicker.

To recap, my interactions with Merv are via the professional social media Holy Trinity of blogs, twitter.com and LinkedIn.com. The above is just one small example of how industry experts can leverage social media to get their message across, increase their network of influence and deliver very rapid value. I can only see these types of interactions increasing in the future. Sometimes social media can be over-hyped, but in the world of industry analysis it seems to be a marriage made in heaven.
 


 
Analyst and consultant Merv Adrian founded IT Market Strategy after three decades in the IT industry. During his tenure as Senior Vice President at Forrester Research, he was responsible for all of Forrester’s technology research, covered the software industry and launched Forrester’s well-regarded practice in Analyst Relations. Earlier, as Vice President at Giga Information Group, Merv focused on facilitating collaborative research and served as executive editor of the monthly Research Digest and weekly GigaFlash.

Prior to becoming an analyst, Merv was Senior Director, Strategic Marketing at Sybase, where he also held director positions in data warehouse marketing and analyst relations. Prior to Sybase, Merv served as a marketing manager at Information Builders, where he founded and edited a technical journal and a marketing quarterly, subsequently becoming involved in corporate and product marketing and launching a formal AR role.
 

BI and Competition – Bruno Aziza at Microsoft

Bruno Aziza Worldwide Strategy Lead, Business Intelligence at Microsoft

Introduction

Bruno Aziza, Worldwide Strategy Lead for Business Intelligence at Microsoft recently drew my attention to his article on The Official Microsoft Blog entitled Use Business Intelligence To Compete More Effectively.

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).

Setting the bar higher

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

"Lightning" striking twice in Bejing

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.
 


 
You can follow Bruno on twitter.com at @brunoaziza
 

Google Fools Day

Happy April Fools Day from Google

A nice touch – pointed out by @CurtMonash (who seems to be cropping up on my blog quite a bit at the moment):

  • Results 1 – 10 of about 63,300,000 for peter thomas. (2.00 shakes of a lamb’s tail)
  • Results 1 – 10 of about 63,300,000 for peter thomas. (0.10 microfortnights)
  • Results 1 – 10 of about 63,300,000 for peter thomas. (1.21 gigawatts)

and so on…

Try it yourself here .

Though I suspect you have only a few hours left.
 


 
Also worth checking out:

  1. The burgeoning NoData movement, led by revolutionary in chief @merv.
  2. The cutting-edge concept of Subterranean Computing, championed by @ocdqblog – so much more substantive than The Cloud.

 

Inspiration

From one of those rather annoying "motivational" pictures that seem to adorn a lot of HR department's walls nowadays
 
Introduction

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:

A deductive technique

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

 
Thing One

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.

twitter.com

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:

Chocolate Marilyn

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.
 

A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools

Tools
 
Introduction

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).

The UK's finest sport climer - Steve McClure - sports the Pink'uns

When I started rock climbing, my first pair of shoes were Zephyrs from Spanish climbing firm Boreal. They looked something like this:

The Zephyr by Boreal - $87 - £67
The Zephyr by Boreal - $87 - £67

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 Galileo by FiveTen - $130 - £85
The Galileo by FiveTen - $130 - £85

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).

The Solution by La Sportiva - $155 - £120 (link goes to the Sportiva site)
The Solution by La Sportiva - $155 - £120
(the link loads a Flash page on the Sportiva site)

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:

A Miller's Tale (V4/Font 6b+) - Rubicon Wall, Derbyshire, England
A Miller's Tale (V4/Font 6b+)
Rubicon Wall, Derbyshire, England
© http://77jenn.blogspot.com

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.

Campus board training

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.

Notes:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

Requirements - Data Analysis - Information - Manage Change
Requirements - Data Analysis - Information - Manage Change

Returning to another of my passions, Business Intelligence, I see some pertinent parallels. In a series of previous articles (including BI implementations are like icebergs, “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards and Short-term “Trouble for Big Business Intelligence Vendors” may lead to longer-term advantage) , I have laid out my framework for BI success and explained why I feel that technology is not the most important part of a BI programme.

My recommended approach is based on four pillars:

  1. Determine what information is necessary to drive key business decisions.
  2. Understand the various data sources that are available and how they relate to each other.
  3. Transform the data to meet the information needs.
  4. 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

What Car?

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

IBM to acquire SPSS

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

Full story here.

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.

A precursor to Business Intelligence

As with any technical innovation over the centuries, it is only when the technology itself becomes invisible that the real benefits flow.