5 More Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum

A rather famous theme

This article is the second of two pieces reflecting on the emerging role of the Chief Data Officer. Each article covers 5 themes. You can read the first five themes here.

As with the first article, I would like to thank both Peter Aiken, who reviewed a first draft of this piece and provided useful clarifications and additional insights, and several of my fellow delegates, who also made helpful suggestions around the text. Again any errors of course remain my responsibility.
 
 
Introduction Redux

After reviewing a draft of the first article in this series and also scanning an outline of this piece, one of the other attendees at the inaugural IRM(UK) / DAMA CDO Executive Forum rightly highlighted that I had not really emphasised the strategic aspects of the CDO’s work; both data / information strategy and the close linkage to business strategy. I think the reason for this is that I spend so much of my time on strategic work that I’ve internalised the area. However, I’ve come to the not unreasonable conclusion that internalisation doesn’t work so well on a blog, so I will call out this area up-front (as well as touching on it again in Theme 10 below).

For more of my views on strategy formation in the data / information space please see my trilogy of articles starting with: Forming an Information Strategy: Part I – General Strategy.

With that said, I’ll pick up where we left off with the themes that arose in the meeting: 
 
Theme 6 – While some CDO roles have their genesis in risk mitigation, most are focussed on growth

Epidermal growth factor receptor

This theme gets to the CDO / CAO debate (which I will be writing about soon). It is true that the often poor state of data governance in organisations is one reason why the CDO role has emerged and also that a lot of CDO focus is inevitably on this area. The regulatory hurdles faced by many industries (e.g. Solvency II in my current area of Insurance) also bring a significant focus on compliance to the CDO role. However, in the unanimous view of the delegates, while cleaning the Augean Stables is important and equally organisations which fail to comply with regulatory requirements tend to have poor prospects, most CDOs have a growth-focussed agenda. Their primary objective is to leverage data (or to facilitate its leverage) to drive growth and open up new opportunities. Of course good data management is a prerequisite for achieving this objective in a sustainable manner, but it is not an end in itself. Any CDO who allows themself to be overwhelmed by what should just be part of their role is probably heading in the same direction as a non-compliant company.
 
 
Theme 7 – New paradigms are data / analytics-centric not application-centric

Applications & Data

Historically, technology landscapes used to be application-centric. Often there would be a cluster of systems in the centre (ideally integrated with each other in some way) and each with their own analytics capabilities; a CRM system with customer analytics “out-of-the-box” (whatever that really means in practice), an ERP system with finance analytics and maybe supply-chain analytics, digital estates with web analytics and so on. Even if there was a single-central system (those of us old enough will still remember the ERP vision), then this would tend to have various analytical repositories around it used by different parts of the organisation for different purposes. Equally some of the enterprise data warehouses I have built have included specialist analytical repositories, e.g. to support pricing, or risk, or other areas.

Today a new paradigm is emerging. Under this, rather than being at the periphery, data and analytics are in the centre, operating in a more joined-up manner. Many companies have already banked the automation and standardisation benefits of technology and are now looking instead to exploit the (often considerably larger) information and insight benefits [1]. This places information and insight assets at the centre of the landscape. It also means that finally information needs can start to drive system design and selection, not the other way round.
 
 
Theme 8 – Data and Information need to be managed together

Data and Information in harness

We see a further parallel with the CAO vs CDO debate here [2]. After 27 years with at least one foot in IT (though often in hybrid roles with dual business / IT reporting) and 15 explicitly in the data and information space, I really fail to see how data and information are anything other than two sides of the same coin.

To people who say that the CAO is the one who really understands the business and the CDO worries instead about back-end data governance, I would reply that an engine is only as good as the fuel that you put into it. I’d over-extend the analogy (as is my wont [3]) by saying that the best engineers will have a thorough understanding of:

  1. what purpose the engine will be applied to – racing car, or lorry (truck)
  2. the parameters within which it is required to perform
  3. the actual performance requirements
  4. what that means in terms of designing the engine
  5. what inputs the engine will have: petrol/diesel/bio-fuel/electricity
  6. what outputs it will produce (with no reference to poor old Volkswagen intended)

It may be that the engineering team has experts in various areas from metallurgy, to electronics, to chemistry, to machining, to quality control, to noise and vibration suppression, to safety, to general materials science and that these are required to work together. But whoever is in charge of overall design, and indeed overall production, would need to have knowledge spanning all these areas and would in addition need to ensure that specialists under their supervision worked harmoniously together to get the best result.

Data is the basic building block of information. Information is the embodiment of things that people want or need to know. You cannot generate information (let alone insight) without a very strong understanding of data. You can neither govern, nor exploit, data in any useful way without knowledge of the uses to which it will be put. Like the chief product engineer, there is a need for someone who understands all of the elements, all of the experts working on these and can bring them together just as harmoniously [4]).
 
 
Theme 9 – Data Science is not enough

If you don't understand  the notation, you've failed in your application to be a  Data Scientist

In Part One of this article I repeated an assertion about the typical productivity of data scientists:

“Data Scientists are only 10-20% productive; if you start a week-long piece of work on Monday, the actual statistical analysis will commence on Friday afternoon; the rest of the time is battling with the data”

While the many data scientists I know would attest to the truth of this, there is a broader point to be made. That is the need for what can be described as Data Interpreters. This role is complementary to the data science community, acting as an interface between those with PhDs in statistics and the rest of the world. At IRM(UK) ED&BI one speaker even went so far as to present a photo graph of two ladies who filled these ying and yang roles at a European organisation.

More broadly, the advent of data science, while welcome, has not obviated the need to pass from data through information to get to insight for most of an organisation’s normal measurements. Of course an ability to go straight from data to insight is also a valuable tool, but it is not suitable for all situations. There are also a number of things to be aware of before uncritically placing full reliance on statistical models [5].
 
 
Theme 10 – Information is often a missing link between Business and IT strategies

Business => Information => IT

This was one of the most interesting topics of discussion at the forum and we devoted substantial time to exploring issues and opportunities in this area. The general sense was that – as all agreed – IT strategy needs to be aligned with business strategy [6]. However, there was also agreement that this can be hard and in many ways is getting harder. With IT leaders nowadays often consumed by the need to stay abreast of both technology opportunities (e.g. cloud computing) and technology threats (e.g. cyber crime) as well as inevitably having both extensive business as usual responsibilities and significant technology transformation programmes to run, it could be argued that some IT departments are drifting away from their business partners; not through any desire to do so, but just because of the nature (and volume) of current work. Equally with the increasing pace of business change, few non-IT executives can spend as much time understanding the role of technology as was once perhaps the case.

Given that successful information work must have a foot in both the business and technology camps (“what do we want to do with our data?” and “what data do we have available to work with?” being just two pertinent questions), the argument here was that an information strategy can help to build a bridge these two increasingly different worlds. Of course this chimes with the feedback on the primacy of strategy that I got on my earlier article from another delegate; and which I reference at the beginning of this piece. It also is consistent with my own view that the data → information → insight → action journey is becoming an increasingly business-focused one.

A couple of CDO Forum delegates had already been thinking about this area and went so far as to present models pertaining to a potential linkage, which they had either created or adapted from academic journals. These placed information between business and IT pillars not just with respect to strategy but also architecture and implementation. This is a very interesting area and one which I hope to return to in coming weeks.
 
 
Concluding thoughts

As I mentioned in Part One, the CDO Forum was an extremely useful and thought-provoking event. One thing which was of note is that – despite the delegates coming from many different backgrounds, something which one might assume would be a barrier to effective communication – they shared a common language, many values and comparable views on how to take the areas of data management and data exploitation forward. While of course delegates at an such an eponymous Forum might be expected to emphasise the importance of their position, it was illuminating to learn just how seriously a variety organisations were taking the CDO role and that CDOs were increasingly becoming agents of growth rather than just risk and compliance tsars.

Amongst the many other themes captured in this piece and its predecessor, perhaps a stand-out was how many organisations view the CDO as a firmly commercial / strategic role. This can only be a positive development and my hope is that CDOs can begin to help organisations to better understand the asset that their data represents and then start the process of leveraging this to unlock its substantial, but often latent, business value.
 


 
Notes

 
[1]
 
See Measuring the benefits of Business Intelligence
 
[2]
 
Someone really ought to write an article about that!

UPDATE: They now have in: The Chief Data Officer “Sweet Spot” and Alphabet Soup

 
[3]
 
See Analogies for some further examples as well as some of the pitfalls inherent in such an approach.
 
[4]
 
I cover this duality in many places in this blog, for the reader who would like to learn more about my perspectives on the area, A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools is probably a good place to start; this links to various other resources on this site.
 
[5]
 
I cover some of these here, including (in reverse chronological order):

 
[6]
 
I tend to be allergic to the IT / Business schism as per: Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus (incidentally the first substantive article on I wrote for this site), but at least it serves some purpose in this discussion, rather than leading to unproductive “them and us” syndrome, that is sadly all to often the outcome.

 

 

5 Themes from a Chief Data Officer Forum

A rather famous theme

This article is the first of two pieces reflecting on the emerging role of the Chief Data Officer. Each article will cover 5 themes and the concluding chapter may be viewed here.

I would like to thank both Peter Aiken, who reviewed a first draft of this piece and provided useful clarifications and additional insights, and several of my fellow delegates, who also made helpful suggestions around the text. Any errors of course remain my responsibility.
 
 
Introduction

As previously trailed, I attended the IRM(UK) Enterprise Data & Business Intelligence seminar on 3rd and 4th November. On the first of these days I sat on a panel talking about approaches to leveraging data “beyond the Big Data hype”. This involved fielding some interesting questions, both from the Moderator – Mike Simons – and the audience; I’ll look to pen something around a few of these in coming days. It was also salutary that each one of the panellists cast themselves as sceptics with respect to Big Data (the word “Luddite” was first discussed as an appropriate description, only to then be discarded); feeling that it was a very promising technology but a long way from the universal panacea it is often touted to be.

However it is on the second day of the event that I wanted to focus in this article. During this I was asked to attend the inaugural Chief Data Officer Executive Forum, sponsored by long-term IRM partner DAMA, the international data management association. This day-long event was chaired by data management luminary Peter Aiken, Associate Professor of Information Systems at Virginia Commonwealth University and Founding Director of data management consultancy Data Blueprint.

The forum consisted of a small group of people working in the strongly-related arenas of data management, data governance, analytics, warehousing and information architecture. Some attendees formally held the title of CDO, some carried out functions overlapping or analogous to the CDO. This is probably not surprising given the emergent nature of the CDO role in many industries.

There was a fair mix of delegate backgrounds, including people who previously held commercial roles, or ones in each of finance, risk and technology (a spread that I referred to in my pre-conference article). The sectors attendees worked in ranged from banking, to manufacturing, to extractives, to government to insurance. A handful of DAMA officers made up the final bakers’ dozen of “wise men” [1].

Discussions were both wide-ranging and very open, so I am not going to go into specifics of what people said, or indeed catalogue the delegates or their organisations. However, I did want to touch on some of the themes which arose from our interchanges and I will leaven these with points made in Peter Aiken’s excellent keynote address, which started the day in the best possible way.
 
 
Theme 1 – Chief Data Officer is a full-time job

Not a part-time activity

In my experience in business, things happen when an Executive is accountable for them and things languish when either a committee looks at an area (= no accountability), or the work receives only middle-management attention (= no authority). If both being a guardian of an organisation’s data (governance) and caring about how this is leveraged to deliver value (exploitation) are important things, then they merit Executive ownership.

Equally it can be tempting to throw the data and information agenda to an existing Executive, maybe one who already plays in the information arena such as the CFO. The problem with this is that I don’t know many CFOs who have a lot of spare time. They tend to have many priorities already. Let’s say that your average CFO has 20 main things that they worry about. When they add data and information to this mix, then let’s be optimistic and say this slots in at number 15. Is this really going to lead to paradigm-shifting work on data exploitation or data governance?

For most organisations the combination of Data Governance and Data Exploitation is a huge responsibility in terms of both scope and complexity. It is not work to be approached lightly and definitively not territory where a part-timer will thrive.

Peter Aiken also emphasizes that a newly appointed CDO may well find him or herself looking to remediate years of neglect for areas such as data management. The need to address such issues suggests that focus is required.

To turn things round, how many organisations of at least a reasonable size have one of their executives act as CFO on a part time basis?
 
 
Theme 2 – The CDO most logically reports into a commercial area (CEO or COO)

Where does the CDO fit?

I’d echo Peter Aiken’s comments that IT departments and the CIOs who lead them have achieved great things in the past decades (I’ve often been part of the teams doing just this). However today (often as a result of just such successes) the CIO’s remit is vast. Even just care and feeding of the average organisation’s IT estate is a massive responsibility. If you add in typical transformation programmes as well, it is easy to see why most CIOs are extremely busy.

Another interesting observation is that the IT project mindset – while wholly suitable for the development, purchase and integration of transaction processing systems – is less aligned with data-centric work. This is because data evolves. Peter Aiken also talks about data operating at a different cadence, by which he means the flow or rhythm of events, especially the pattern in which something is experienced.

More prosaically, anyone who has seen the impact of a set of parallel and uncoordinated projects on a previously well-designed data warehouse will be able to attest to the project and asset mindsets not mingling too well in the information arena. Also, unlike much IT work, data-centric activities are not always ones that can be characterised by having a beginning, middle and end; then tend to be somewhat more open ended as an organisation’s data seldom is static and its information needs have similar dynamism.

Instead, the exploitation of an organisation’s data is essentially a commercial exercise which is 100% targeted at better business decision making. This work should be focussed on adding value (see also Theme 5 below). Both of these facts argue for the responsible function reporting outside of IT (but obviously with a very strong technical flavour). Logical reporting lines are thus into either the CEO or COO, assuming that the latter is charged with the day-to-day operations of the business [2].
 
 
Theme 3 – The span of CDO responsibilities is still evolving

Answers on a postcard...

While there are examples of CDOs being appointed in the early 2000s, the role has really only recently impinged on the collective corporate consciousness. To an extent, many organisations have struggled with the data → information → insight → action journey, so it is unsurprising that the precise role of the CDO is at present not entirely clear. Is CDO a governance-focussed role, or an information-generating role, or both? How does a CDO relate to a Chief Analytics Officer, or are they the same thing? [3]

It is evident that there is some confusion here. On the assumption (see Theme 2 above) that the CDO sits outside IT, then how does it relate to IT and where should data-centric development resource be deployed? How does the CDO relate to compliance and risk? [4]

The other way of looking at this is that there is a massive opportunity for embryonic CDOs to define their function and span of control. We have had CFOs and their equivalents for centuries (longer if you go back to early Babylonian Accounting), how exciting would it be to frame the role and responsibilities of an entirely new C-level executive?
 
 
Theme 4 – Data Management is an indispensable foundation for Analytics, Visualisation and Statistical Modelling

Look out for vases containing scorpions...

Having been somewhat discursive on the previous themes, here I will be brief. I’ve previously argued that a picture paints a thousand words [5] and here I’ll simply include my poor attempt at replicating an exhibit that I have borrowed from Peter Aiken’s deck. I think it speaks for itself:

Data Governance Triangle

You can view Peter’s original, which I now realise diverges rather a lot from my attempt to reproduce it, here.

I’ll close this section by quoting a statistic from the plenary sessions of the seminar: “Data Scientists are only 10-20% productive; if you start a week-long piece of work on Monday, the actual statistical analysis will commence on Friday afternoon; the rest of the time is battling with the data” [6].

CDOs should be focussed on increasing the productivity of all staff (Data Scientists included) by attending to necessary foundational work in the various areas highlighted in the exhibit above.
 
 
Theme 5 – The CDO is in the business of driving cultural change, not delivering shiny toys

When there's something weird on your board of dash / When there's something weird and it's kinda crass / Who you gonna call?

While all delegates agreed that a CDO needs to deliver business value, a distinction was made between style and substance. As an example, Big Data is a technology – an exciting one which allows us to do things we have not done before, but still a technology. It needs to be supported and rounded out by attention to process and people. The CDO should be concerned about all three of these dimensions (see also Theme 4 above).

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that some of the attendees at the CDO forum hailed from the extractive industries. We had some excellent discussions about how safety has been embedded in the culture of such organisations. But we also spoke about just how long this has taken and how much effort was required to bring about the shift in mindset. As always, changing human behaviour is not a simple or quick thing. If one goal of a CDO is to embed reliance on credible information (including robust statistical models) into an organisation’s DNA, then early progress is not to be anticipated; instead the CDO should be dug in for the long-term and have vast reserves of perseverance.

As regular readers will be unsurprised to learn, I’m delighted with this perspective. Indeed tranches of this blog are devoted precisely to the important area [7]. I am also somewhat allergic to a focus on fripperies at the expense of substance, something I discussed most directly in “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards. These perspectives seem to be well-aligned with the stances being adopted by many CDOs.

As with any form of change, the group unanimously felt that good communication lay at the heart of success. A good CDO needs to be a consummate communicator.
 
 
Tune in next time…

I have hopefully already given some sense of the span of topics the CDO Executive Forum discussed. The final article in this short series covers a further 5 themes and then look to link these together with some more general conclusions about what a CDO should do and how they should do it.
 


 
Notes

 
[1]
 
Somewhat encouragingly three of these were actually wise women, then maybe I am setting the bar too low!
 
[2]
 
Though if reporting to a COO, the CDO will need to make sure that they stay close to wherever business strategy is developed; perhaps the CEO, perhaps a senior strategy or marketing executive.
 
[3]
 
I plan to write on the CDO / CAO dichotomy in coming weeks.

UPDATE: I guess it took more than a few weeks, but now see: The Chief Data Officer “Sweet Spot” and Alphabet Soup

 
[4]
 
I will expand on this area in Theme 6, which will be part of the second article in this series.
 
[5]
 
I actually have the cardinality wrong here as per my earlier article.
 
[6]
 
I will return to this point in Theme 9, which again will be part of the second article in the series.
 
[7]
 
A list of articles about cultural change in the context of information programmes may be viewed here.

 

 

Wanted – Chief Data Officer

Your organisation's data wants you

My updates here have been notable mostly for their infrequency in recent years. Indeed, in the period since my last substantive piece (Forming an Information Strategy: Part III – Completing the Strategy), I have had time to become a father again; a very welcome event but undeniably one which is not the most conducive to blogging.

Readers who may recall a more prolific period in my writing on this site will also probably remember that I have had a long association with the information-centric seminars run by IRM(UK). They have been kind enough to ask me to present three times at their Data Warehousing / Business Intelligence (DW/BI) events and once at their Master Data Management / Data Governance (MDM/DG) one.

Enterprise Data & BI 2015

In a sign of the times, IRM DW/BI has now morphed into the IRM Enterprise Data / Business Intelligence (ED/BI) seminar. I will be returning this week, not to present, but to form part of a panel discussing “Beyond Big Data, Delivering Real Time Actionable Business Intelligence to Your Organisation”. This panel will be chaired by Mike Simons, associate editor of a number of IDG organs such as CIO.com and ComputerWorldUK.com.

However, plugging this seminar is not my main reason for putting fingertip to keyboard today. The last few years has seen the rise of a new member of the CxO pantheon, the Chief Data Office (or CDO). It is a toss-up whether this role, or that of Data Scientist (“the sexiest job of the 21st century” according to the less sober than usual Harvard Business Review) has had more column inches devoted to it in recent times. Perhaps in reflection of this, IRM have also asked me to attend the co-located CDO Executive Forum this week. While it can be argued that elements of what a CDO does have been done by people with other titles for many years (I have been one of them), the profile of this role is indisputably a new development and one worth commenting on.

In a way the use of “data” in this title is somewhat misleading. In my experience CDO’s don’t focus exclusively on data (the atomic level), but on the process of turning this into information (basic molecules created from atoms), from which can be drawn insight (more complex molecules containing many sub-units) and which – if the process is to have any value at all – has to finally lead to some form of action [1]. Of course part of the idea of Data Scientists is to go straight from data to insight, but this is less straightforward than might be thought and clearly doesn’t obviate the need for a complementary and more structured approach [2].

Further food for thought for me has been some interesting observations on James Taylor’s blog [3] about the relationship between CDOs and Chief Analytics Officers (the latter perhaps echoing my former ideas around the role of Chief Business Intelligence Officer). He covers whether these should be separate roles, or combined into one, drawing the conclusion that it maybe depends on the maturity of an organisation.

Looking around the market, it seems that CDOs are a varied bunch and come from a number of different backgrounds. I began to think about what might be the core requirements for success in such a role. This led into what can be viewed as a rough and ready recruitment advert. I present my initial ideas below and would welcome any suggestions for change or refinement.

 
Requirements for a CDO:

  1. A desire to do the job full time and not as an add on to existing responsibilities
  2. A background steeped in the journey from data → information → insight → action
  3. A firm grasp of the strategy development process
  4. A thought leader with respect to data and information
  5. Strong leadership credentials
  6. An excellent communicator
  7. Structured approach
  8. Ability to influence as well as set directions
  9. Highly numerate (likely with a post graduate degree in the Physical Sciences or Mathematics) and thus able to commune with analytical staff
  10. Equally a strong understanding of technology and its role in driving success
  11. Experience of implementing Data Governance and improving Data Quality
  12. Experience of delivering and embedding enhanced Information Capabilities

A background in one or more of the following and exposure to / understanding of the majority:

  1. Strategy
  2. Marketing
  3. Commercial
  4. Analytical business disciplines (e.g. Actuarial Science in Insurance, Customer Insight in Retail)
  5. Accounting – not least from a reconciliation point of view
  6. Statistical Analysis
  7. Technology (specifically Information Management)

 

Of the above, the desire to be a full-time CDO is crucial. The only point in having a CDO is if an organisation regards its data and the information it can generate as strategic assets, which require senior stewardship. If they are such assets, then these areas need the whole attention of an executive who is both accountable and whose has the authority to move things forwards. Simply adding data to the plate of an already busy executive in some other area (the CFO, CMO or CIO for example) is highly unlikely to drive a stepped change in business decision-making.

Of course while the above list is necessary background / expertise for a CDO, ticking these boxes will not in and of itself guarantee success. Instead – at least in my opinion – success is likely to be predicated on some rather less novel approaches to driving business change. It is my aspiration to be a bit more regular in my publications and so I plan to cover some of these (as well as talking more about specifics in the data → information → insight → action journey) in coming weeks and months.
 


 
Notes

 
[1]
 
Perhaps equating this to the tertiary structure of macro-molecules might be stretching the point here, but when has that ever stopped me getting the last drop out of an analogy.
 
[2]
 
I covered some similar ground some time ago in Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom.
 
[3]
 
James Taylor on EDM – Chief Analytics Officer Summit Opening Keynotes.

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

The Data Warehousing Institute

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Hi Peter,

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

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

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

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

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

Now where did I put that hairbrush?

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

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

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

Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Great Divide – Worrying parallels between Windows 8 and the Xbox One

Yosemite Valley

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.

My new 'laptop'

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[1].

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.

Fitzgerald demonstrating that you can play two roles

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[2]. What was different historically was that both creators and consumers used the same kit; PCs of some flavour[3] (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.

PC and iPad

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.

Which market would you rather sell into?

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.

An early adopter of Excel 2013

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.

Brothers in arms?

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.


Notes

[1] 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.
[2] 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.[citation needed]
[3] 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.

 

 

A William Tell moment?

Microsoft Surface
Image © Microsoft


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 #2: Beyond this, the author has been featured in a Microsoft Business Intelligence video; but this did not relate to the endorsement of any Microsoft product.

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:

Perceptive tech industry commentary
“My new computer came with Windows 7. Windows 7 is much more user-friendly than Windows Vista. I don’t like that.”

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…

Smarter than the average iPad user?

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.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18626087

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.

A long long time ago / I can still remember how / That gadget used to make me smile / And I knew if I did my tricks / That I could save those people's clicks /  And maybe they'd be happy for a while...

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
 

 

Tiny Trilogy

The last in a series of mini-posts, normal (aka more prolix) service will be resumed soon.

Although tinyurl.com was a pioneer in URL shortening, it seems to have been overtaken by a host of competing services. For example I tend to use bit.ly most of the time. However I still rather like the tinyurl.com option to create your own bespoke shortened URLs.

This feature rather came into its own recently when I was looking for a concise way to share my recent trilogy focusing on the use of historical data to justify BI/DW investments in Insurance. There is something satisfying in thinking that the following will persist as long as tinyurl.com does:

http://tinyurl.com/bi-insurance-part-1
   
http://tinyurl.com/bi-insurance-part-2
   
http://tinyurl.com/bi-insurance-part-3

It is nice to make a [semi-] permanent mark from time to time!
 

 

You have to love Google

…well if you used to be a Number Theorist that is.

Google / Fermat

It’s almost enough to make me forgive them for Gmail’s consider including “feature”. Almost!
 

 

LinkedIn does what it says on the can

Referring domains
An analysis of peterjamesthomas.com traffic based on linking site

I suppose, given that this is a essentially professional blog, I should not be surprised that LinkedIn dominates traffic for me, dwarfing even the mighty Google and Twitter (incidentally Facebook was in 13th place, below Microsoft – a verdict of “could do better”, but then Facebook is only semi-pro for me).

It is also worth noting that traffic from all WordPress blogs (not included in the 4% WordPress figure above) amounted to 3% of traffic. Adding in all other non-corporate blogs got this to 5% and notional 4th place).

It is also notable that StumbleUpon outdid all other social bookmarking sites, with Reddit next in a lowly 23rd place.
 
 
Some selected top threes…

Please note that the only criteria here is quantum of traffic.
 
 
The Social Media “Big Three”

  1. LinkedIn
  2. Twitter
  3. Facebook

 
Vendors

  1. Microsoft
  2. SAS
  3. IBM

 
Blogs

  1. Oracle Business Intelligence 101
  2. Judith Hurwitz
  3. Merv Adrian

 
Social Bookmarking

  1. StumbleUpon
  2. Reddit
  3. Delicious

 
Blog Readers

  1. Bloglines (now sadly defunct)
  2. Netvibes
  3. Google Reader

 
Technology News / Communities

  1. Smart Data Collective
  2. IT Business Edge
  3. Joint: IT Finance Connection & Social Media Today

 
Media

  1. CIO Magazine
  2. The Economist
  3. Computing

 

I should point out that the figures presented above are all-time, rather than say the last six months. It would be interesting to do some trending, but this is a bit more clunky to achieve than one might expect.
 

Four [Social Media] Failures and a Success

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

Introduction

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

Articles per month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

linkedin CIO Magazine CIO Magazine forum

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

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

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

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

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

Starting them young...

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

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

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

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

Clueless about Social Media

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

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

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

– Joe Blogs

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

Microsoft

– Jimmy Blogs

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

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

– Jeff Blogs

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

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

The above rather bizarre behaviour leads to two questions:

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

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

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

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

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

Business Intelligence Expert

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

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

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