The latest and greatest versus the valuable

A World of Bytes by Curt Monash

This article expands on some comments I made on Curt Monash‘s latest blog posting: Why the basically good choice of Aneesh Chopra for US CTO scares the bejeesus out of me. In this, Curt argues that:

[the new US government CIO and CTO may be] so focused on shiny new technologies that they won’t address some of the devastatingly critical challenges of government IT.

Curt then goes on to list some of the important areas that he is concerned will not recieve enough attention. Although Curt’s piece was directed at a very specific area, I think that it raises some general questions. Here are the comments that I made on his blog:

“As you allude to, one of the main problems that IT faces is its focus on the new and shiny, sometimes to the exclusion of the older, but more worthy. I’m by no means a technology Luddite, progress is to be desired, but there has to be some reason for it; something beyond just being neat.

This is a double-headed monster in my opinion. First IT types like me are often drawn to the new and sexy – maybe that’s why we got into the business in the first place. Second, the flashy – particularly when it makes it to general business publications, can generate a “me too” attitude in senior executives, sometimes deflecting IT attention from less glamorous, but more necessary work.

As with most things in life, a balance between both elements of IT is probably what is most necessary.”

I have touched on this area already a couple of times. It was one of the issues that I identified in Problems associated with the IT cycle, where I said:

“On top of this we can add some attributes of IT staff which, although generally desirable, can have a downside as well. Many IT people want to be involved in the latest and greatest technology – this is not always what is going to add most value to the business.”

Also, much of my article about dashboards relates to this issue, as may be deduced by the title: “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards. In this I comment:

“[…] echoing my comments on BI tools in general, I think an attractive looking dashboard is really only the icing on the cake. The cake itself has two main other ingredients:

  1. The actual figures that it presents (and how well they have been chosen) and
  2. The Information Architecture that underpins them”

Making what I realise is something of a bold leap here, I think that this fascination with the new and technically cool is one reason that IT managers sometimes feel left out of the inner circle of executives of an organisation. In some people’s minds (sometimes those of influential people) IT is too readily associated with Sci-Fi conventions, comic books and and pocket protectors (with of course my apologies in advance to devotees of each of these). This may seem a trivial point, but such associations sometimes run deep; everyone loves a good stereotype.

Of course there are many business-focussed IT managers out there striving to deliver value for their organisations, to boost sales, or reach new customers, or reduce costs; I have been one of them myself. But these industrious individuals are sometimes still seen through the “geek” prism I have described above. Maybe it is only by focsuing more established technologies, ones that demonstrably add business value, that the profession will be able to throw off this yoke.

Although I am rather fond of using quotations on this blog, it is not typical for me to cite religious texts. However, maybe St. Paul had IT in mind when he wrote:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

While the IT leads of the US government can be accused of too great a focus on what many might view as childish things, then it seems that we still have some way to go.
 

Recipes for success?

I should acknowledge that I am indebted to a conversation that I had with John Collins on his blog, Views from the Bridge, for some of the themes I discuss in this article.
 
Recipe for Success?
 
Introduction

Towards the end of a recent article on perseverance I referred to people’s desire to find recipes for success. Here’s what I said:

Sometimes we want to find a magic recipe for success, or – to mix the metaphor – a silver bullet. We want to discover a series of defined steps to take that, if repeated religiously, will guarantee that we get to the desired goal each and every time. That’s why articles entitled “The 5 ways to […]” and “My top tips for […]” are so well-read on the web.

As well as my examples of internet top tips (see any number of articles claiming to tell you how to use twitter successfully to get the idea), this phenomenon is also a major factor behind the enduring popularity of celebrity business books. As far as I can see, these fall into two categories.
 
 
1. The Ex-CEO

This is where the extremely successful and well-known Mr Brown (and sadly it is still mostly Mr, rather than Ms Brown), now retired but previously President and CEO of Big Company Inc., writes (or more likely has some one ghost-write) a memoir explaining the secrets of his success. While the book may dwell on their upbringing, education, role models, or character-forming events in their lives, much of the work will probably focus on them just being much smarter, more risk-taking, or having greater insight than the competition (most likely all of these). Of course there may well be some interesting tit-bits amongst the reams of self-aggrandisement, but it is worth questioning just how applicable these might be to your own situation.

Are the things that Mr Brown ascribes his success to really what led to his glittering career? Are there perhaps other factors that are not captured in the memoir, but which, if absent in another organisation, would render implementing Mr Brown’s explicit recommendations valueless? Did Mr Brown’s greatest achievements actually have a big slice of luck attached to them (stumbling upon a market or a product by accident, a major competitor losing their way, events beyond anyone’s control shaping matters and so on)? Would the things that Big Company Inc. did under Mr Brown’s esteemed leadership actually work in another company, in a different market or country and with a distinctive business culture?

Put it this way, if you work in Financial Services, would copying what worked in Retail be a good idea? Alternatively, if two companies are both in Retail, does it make sense for a less successful company to slavishly adopt the strategy of the market leader – wouldn’t it be more sensible if they tried to develop a different strategy in order to differentiate their brand?

Of course there is always value in learning from the mistakes and successes of others, but surely there is a limit to how useful a business memoir can be in forming a business strategy.
 
 
2. The Academic Expert

Here Professor Green (probably still male), has a long and distinguished career in academia, reading and deconstructing the memoirs of Mr Brown and his peers, identifying common themes between them, doing primary research and constructing recherché models of business strategy development and execution. If there is a new management fad out there, Professor Green is sure to know about it – in fact it may well be based on an article of his that appeared in HBR.

Well there is certainly some value in trying to tease out commonalities between successful companies, but this is probably a lot harder than it might seem. While there may be some recurring themes, maybe many of our champions of business are one offs, successful for reasons other than their business models or strategies. In fact they may well be as unique as the people who lead them. Maybe there is no equivalent of the standard model of quantum mechanics (to say nothing of a deeper grand unified theory) that underpins business success – perhaps the science of business is different from the more reductionist sciences, such as physics. Maybe there isn’t a formula for business success; perhaps it is more like Darwinian natural selection (I’ll come back to this idea later).

Whichever way you look at it, again there is probably a limit to how much insight you can glean from this type of book.
 
 
Other genres

Of course this phenomenon extends into many other areas of human activity. As a youth I can remember only too well poring over cricket manuals in an (ultimately fruitless) attempt to improve my batting or wicket-keeping. My father, at the age of 72, still does the same with golf manuals.

The endless array of cooking books also in the same category and where would we be without the panoply of self-help books such as The Seven Habits of Annoyingly Organised People? All of which goes to show that reliance on recipes for success is a deeply ingrained human trait.
 
 
Recipes for success in IT

Having established that people like turning to both “My top tips for […]” and “Mr Brown’s Glittering Career” (available at all good booksellers) how does this aspect of human nature impinge on one of my main areas of endeavour, IT?

Well it has a major impact in my opinion. In fact it is difficult to think of an area of life more obsessed with frameworks, blue-prints, road-maps, procedures, best practices and methodologies (to say nothing of ontologies and taxonomies). All of these are intended to take the risk out of activities – well at least to provide the people following them with the ability to say “well I did what the methodology told me to do”. Of course IT projects and IT development are very complex things and standards of design, coding and behaviour of systems are of paramount importance; but it still seems that IT people have a more visceral relationship with the above-stated areas than would be dictated solely by ticking the necessary boxes.

Nevertheless, having been personally responsible for instigating a thoroughgoing process of standardisation and quality control in a software house (and thereby obtaining an ISO accreditation), it would be churlish of me to argue that that there is no benefit in rigorously applying methodologies in IT.

When it comes to some aspects of project management and to change management in particular, some of the scepticism that I exhibited about celebrity business books returns. It’s not so much that a methodology or even a list of items to tick is not valuable, but that it cannot be an end in itself. The important thing is the thinking that goes into drawing up what you need to do and how you are going to do it, not the method that you use to record these and monitor progress. Sometimes these crucial ingredients get lost. Indeed there does seem to be an entire class of people who focus just on managing lists, rather than the ideas behind them, or the people actually doing the work.
 
 
The benefits of a Darwinian approach

Charles Darwin

I raised the idea of a Darwinian approach to business strategy earlier in this article. There do seem to be some crossovers with how we observe businesses in operation. We are familiar with the image of companies competing with each other for limited resources (our wallets, mine being very limited at present). We understand the pressure that organisations are under to come up with better, cheaper, more functional and sexier products (that are now carbon neutral and ethically-sourced as well).

The language of business is suffused by jungle analogies. The adaptation of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” to capitalism being just one of the most well-known examples. The companies that are best at this game survive and thrive, those that are not fail and are forgotten. Companies in more mature markets are even often referred to as dinosaurs or fossils. The idea of never-ending refinement and progress pushing on is an essential part of business.

However, perhaps this evolutionary approach, so evident at the macro-level can also work on a micro-scale. Maybe, rather than relying on the thoughts of Mr Brown or Professor Green, a better approach would be come up with some ideas of our own, test them, discard the bad ones and nurture the less bad ones. In time, with appropriate development and alteration, the less bad may become good and then even great (hang on, I seem to have found my way back to business books with that phrase!).

To me, such an approach is more likely to result in something novel and valuable. Following a recipe for success can only ever be as good as the recipe itself. Thinking for yourself can transcend these limitations and I would argue that the downside is no greater than attempting to ape someone else’s ideas. In both cases the worst that can happen is only extinction.
 
 
Disclaimer – sort of

Of course this article has a degree of self reference. Relying upon your own intellect (hopefully refined and improved by other people’s input) is of course another recipe for success. However I hope it is a less proscriptive one. I recommend giving it a try.
 


 
Continue reading about this area in: Synthesis.
 

The Dictatorship of the Analysts

Lest it be thought that I am wholly obsessed by the Business Intelligence vs Business Analytics issue (and to be honest I have a whole lot of other ideas for articles that I would rather be working on), I should point out that this piece is not focussed on SAS. In my last correspondence with that organisation (which was in public and may be viewed here) I agreed with Gaurav Verma’s suggestion that SAS customers be left to make up their own minds about the issue.

CIO Magazine

However the ripples continue to spread from the rock that Jim Davis threw into the Business Intelligence pond. The latest mini-tsunami is in an article on CIO.com by Scott Staples, President and Co-CEO of IT Services at MindTree. [Incidentally, I’d love to tell you more about MindTree’s expertise in the area of Business Intelligence, but unfortunately I can’t get their web-site’s menu to work in either Chrome or IE8; I hope that you have better luck.]

Scott’s full article is entitled Analytics: Unlocking Value in Business Intelligence (BI) Initiatives. In this, amongst other claims, Scott states the following:

To turn data into information, companies need a three-step process:

  1. Data Warehouse (DW)—companies need a place for data to reside and rules on how the data should be structured.
  2. Business Intelligence—companies need a way to slice and dice the data and generate reports.
  3. Analytics—companies need to extract the data, analyze trends, uncover opportunities, find new customer segments, and so forth.

Most companies fail to add the third step to their DW and BI initiatives and hence fall short on converting data into information.

He goes on to say:

[…] instead of companies just talking about their DW and BI strategies, they must now accept analytics as a core component of business intelligence. This change in mindset will solve the dilemma of data ≠ information:

Current Mindset: DW + BI = Data

Future Mindset: DW + (BI + Analytics) = Information

Now in many ways I agree with a lot of what Scott says, it is indeed mostly common sense. My quibble comes with his definitions of BI and Analytics above. To summarise, he essentially says “BI is about slicing and dicing data and generating reports” and “Analytics is about extracting data, analysing trends, uncovering opportunities and finding new customer segments”. To me Scott has really just described two aspects of exactly the same thing, namely Business Intelligence. What is slicing and dicing for if not to achieve the aims ascribed above to Analytics?

Let me again – and for the sake of this argument only – accept the assertion that Analytics is wholly separate from BI (rather than a subset). As I have stated before this is not entirely in accordance with my own views, but I am not religious about this issue of definition and can happily live with other people’s take on it. I suppose that one way of thinking about this separation is to call the bits of BI that are not Analytics by the older name of OLAP (possibly ignoring what the ‘A’ stands for, but I digress). However, even proponents of the essential separateness of BI and Analytics tend to adopt different definitions to Scott.

To me what differentiates Analytics from other parts of BI is statistics. Applying advanced (or indeed relatively simple) statistical methods to structured, reliable data (such as one would hope to find in data warehouses more often than not) would clearly be the province of Analytics. Thus seeking to find attributes of customers (e.g. how reliably they pay their bills, or what areas they live in) or events in their relationships with an organisation (e.g. whether a customer service problem arose and how it was dealt with) that are correlated with retention/repeat business would be Analytics.

Maybe discerning deeply hidden trends in data would also fall into this camp, but what about the rather simpler “analysing trends” that Scott ascribes to Analytics? Well isn’t that just another type of slice and dice that he firmly puts in the BI camp?

Trend analysis in a multidimensional environment is simply using time as one of the dimensions that you are slicing and dicing your measures by. If you want to extrapolate from data, albeit in a visual (and possibly non-rigorous manner) to estimate future figures, then often a simple graph will suffice (something that virtually all BI tools will provide). If you want to remove the impact of outlying values in order to establish a simple correlation, then most BI tools will let you filter, or apply bands (for example excluding large events that would otherwise skew results and mask underlying trends).

Of course it is maybe a little more difficult to do something like eliminating seasonality from figures in these tools, but then this is pretty straightforward to do in Excel if it is an occasional need (and most BI tools support one-click downloading to Excel). If such adjustments are a more regular requirement, then seasonally adjusted measures can be created in the Data Mart with little difficulty. Then pretty standard BI facilities can be used to do some basic analysis.

Of course paid-up statisticians may be crying foul at such loose analysis, of course correlation does not imply causation, but here we are talking about generally rather simple measures such as sales, not the life expectancy of a population, or the GDP of a country. We are also talking about trends that most business people will already have a good feeling for, not phenomena requiring the application of stochastic time series to model them.

So, unlike Scott, I would place “back-of-an-envelop” and graphical-based analysis of figures very firmly in the BI camp. To me proper Analytics is more about applying rigorous statistical methods to data in order to either generate hypotheses, or validate them. It tends to be the province of specialists, whereas BI (under the definition that I am currently using where it is synonymous with OLAP) is carried out profitably by a wider range of business managers.

So is an absence of Analytics – now using my statistically-based definition – a major problem in “converting data into information” as Scott claims? I would answer with a very firm “no”. If we take information as being that which is generated and consumed by a wide range of managers in an organisation, then if this is wrong then the problem is much earlier on and most likely centred on how the data warehousing and BI parts have been implemented (or indeed in a failure to manage the concomitant behavioural change). I covered what I believe are often the reasons that BI projects fail to live up to their promise in my response to a Gartner report. This earlier article may be viewed here.

In fact I think that what happens is that when broader BI projects fail in an organisation, people fall back on two things: a) their own data (Excel and Access) and b) the information developed by the same statistical experts who are the logical users of Analytic tools. The latter is characterised by a reliance on Finance, or Marketing reports produced by highly numerate people with Accounting qualifications or MBAs, but which are often unconnected to business manager’s day-to-day experiences. The phrase “democratisation of information” has been used in relation to BI. Where BI fails, or does not exist, then the situation I have just described is maybe instead the dictatorship of the analysts.

I have chosen the word “dictatorship” with all of its negative connotations advisedly. I do not think that the situations that I have described above is a great position for a company to be in. The solution is not more Analytics, which simply entrenches the position of the experts to the detriment of the wider business community, but getting the more mass-market disciplines of the BI (again as defined above) and data warehousing pieces right and then focussing on managing the related organisational change. In the world of business information, as in the broader context, more democracy is indeed the antidote to dictatorship.

I have penned some of my ideas about how to give your BI projects the greatest chance of success in many places on this blog. But for those interested, I suggest maybe starting with: Scaling-up Performance Management, “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards, The confluence of BI and change management and indeed the other blog articles (both here and elsewhere) that these three pieces link to.

Also for those with less time available, and although the article is obviously focussed on a specific issue, the first few sections of Is outsourcing business intelligence a good idea? pull together many of these themes and may be a useful place to start.

If your organisation is serious about adding value via the better use of information, my recommendation is to think hard about these areas rather than leaping into Analytics just because it is the latest IT plat du jour.
 

The Apologists

A whole mini industry has recently been created in SAS based on justifying Jim Davis’ comments to the effect that: Business Intelligence is dead, long live Business Analytics. An example is a blog post by Alison Bolen, sascom Editor-in-Chief, entitled: More notes on naming. While such dedication to creating jobs in the current economic climate is to be lauded, I’m still not sure what SAS is trying to achieve.

The most recent article is by Gaurav Verma, Global Marketing Manager for Business Analytics at SAS. He calls his piece: Business Analytics vs. Business Intelligence – it’s more than just semantics or marketing hyperbole. In this Gaurav asks the question:

Given that I have been evangelizing BI for more than 12 years as practitioner, analyst, consultant and marketer, I should be leading the calls of blasphemy. Instead, I’m out front leading global marketing for the SAS Business Analytics framework. Why?

One answer that immediately comes to mind is contained in the question, it is of course: “because Gaurav is the head of global marketing for Business Analytics at SAS”.

Later in his argument, by sleight of hand, Gaurav associates business intelligence with:

Traditional and rapidly commoditizing query and reporting

Of course everything that is not “query and reporting” must be called something else, presumably business analytics is an apt phrase in Gaurav’s mind. To me, despite Gaurav’s headline, this is just yet more wordsmithery. No other commentators seem to see BI as primarily “query and reporting” and if you remove this plank from Gaurav’s aregument, the rest of it falls to pieces.

The choice of words is interesting. Recent pieces by SASers have applied adjectives such as “traditional”, “classic” and even “little” to the noun-phrase “business intelligence” in order to explain exactly what Jim Davis actually meant by his remarks. Whether any of these linguistic qualifications of the area of BI are required, separate from the task of supporting Mr Davis’ arguments, remains something of a mystery to me.

I for one would heartily like to move beyond these silly tit-for-tat discussions. My recommendations for the course that SAS should take appear here – albeit in lightly coded form.

Short of retracting Mr Davis’ ill-thought-out comments, the second best idea for SAS might be to be very quiet about the area for a while and hope that people slowly forget about it. For some reason, it is SAS themselves who seem to want to keep this sorry episode alive. They do this by continuing to publish artciles such as Gaurav’s. While this trend continues, I’ll continue to publish my rebuttals, boring as it may become for everyone else.
 

Perseverance

This blog is generally focused on topics in business, technology and change; often all three at the same time. However, from time to time, a personal post leaks in. This is one such post… or is it? Read to the end and then I will leave you to make up your own mind about this question.
 
 
Introduction

Over the years I have played many sports. For example, both cricket and rugby union consumed much of my youth. I have also recently got into mountain biking and really enjoy it. However, the activity that I am most engaged in currently is rock climbing, something that I alluded to at the beginning of a blog post yesterday. Rock climbing forms a very broad church and I have taken part in many aspects of it. However, for a number of reasons, I have gravitated to the sub-genre of bouldering over the last few years.

For the uninitiated, bouldering is climbing un-roped, often on actual boulders, but also on small outcrops and generally going no more than 5-6m (15-20 ft) off the ground. You carry around crash-pads (bouldering mats) with you to hopefully take the brunt of any falls. Indeed the idea with bouldering is to fall… to try again… and to fall again. In fact maybe Beckett had bouldering in mind when he wrote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

The whole point is that, because bouldering is relatively (and I stress the word relatively) safe, you can try to make moves that are at the limit of your ability; moves that would not be terribly sensible to even contemplate making on a longer, higher, roped climb. In fact bouldering climbs are so difficult that they are generally described as “problems”; an apt name that also conveys the fact that sometimes you have to use extreme subtlety and finesse as well as brute strength to get up them.

People often literally spend years attempting to complete a problem, particularly if it represents a new level of climbing for them, or if no one else has climbed the line before. Because of this, such unclimbed lines are often called projects. It’s common to ask a fellow climber about how their current project is progressing. This choice of name perhaps begins to give some indication of why I am sharing my experiences in bouldering with you today.

Having said that most boulder problems are short, some hardy souls also embrace high-ball bouldering which, as the name suggests, takes you a lot further off the ground. The following video shows one of the world’s best climbers, Chris Sharma, bouldering in Bishop, California. It segues to him and another top climber, Ethan Pringle, attempting a high-ball problem that weighs in at around 11-12m (35-40 ft).

Note 1: Ethan issues an expletive under his breath towards the end of the clip. I might well have been tempted to do so myself in similar circumstances, but count yourselves warned.

Note 2: As will be apparent if you try to click on this video, it is sadly no longer available, probably to do with copyright issues. Instead I would recommend that you take a look at the bouldering section of Dead Point Magazine’s site.

Copyright notice. This piece is taken from the DVD King Lines which features Chris Sharma climbing all over the world. The copyright holder is BigUp Productions, a world-renowned and award-winning producer of climbing DVDs.
 
 
So what does this have to do with the price of fish?

Please substitute “the price of eggs” if you are in the US

Green Wall Essential (V2). The Buttermilks, Bishop, CA
Green Wall Essential (V2). The Buttermilks, Bishop, CA

I have recently taken to showing the above photograph at the mid-point of my public speaking about business intelligence and change management. Generally I have introduced it with the comment that I wanted to relieve the audience’s boredom by showing them some of my holiday snaps.

As in the above video, this climb is also in Bishop, California, a world-class bouldering venue. The problem is called Green Wall Essential and its grade of difficulty is V2. Without going into enormous detail about the different grading systems for boulder problems, I’ll simply say that V2 is towards the easier end of the spectrum; V15/16 is the hardest that people have climbed.

The reason that I share this image with business/technology audiences is related to the number of times that I tried (and failed) to climb it. Here are some statistics:

  • More than 80 attempts
  • On 4 different days
  • During 2 separate visits to Bishop
  • Spread over 8 months

I mentioned the term project above; Green Wall Essential became my project and my obsession. The above statistics represent more effort than I have ever put into climbing anything else. The quartz monzonite rock is hard and crystalline. It digs into your fingers and peels off your skin leaving the rock stained with your blood (you can see the tape holding the tips of my fingers together in the photograph). Your muscles and tendons ache from trying to push yourself just that little bit harder in order to attain success. You endlessly try different foot holds and body positions. You try to be slow and precise. When that doesn’t work you try to be aggressive and dynamic. When that doesn’t work… and so on and so on.

Now in order to put in that much effort over that much time, and to put up with that much pain and that much failure, you have to really want to do the problem. You have to be persistent, despite set backs. You have to continue to keep a positive mind-set, to believe that you can be successful, even when you have just failed for the 80th time.

In my experience, that is precisely the same mind-set that you need to be successful with major projects, particularly in the business of change management. Hopefully your fingers will bleed less, but it will not be easy. There will be set-backs. Progress may sometimes seem glacially slow, but if you persevere then the goal is worth it.

Sometimes we want to find a magic recipe for success, or – to mix the metaphor – a silver bullet. We want to discover a series of defined steps to take that, if repeated religiously, will guarantee that we get to the desired goal each and every time. That’s why articles entitled “The 5 ways to […]” and “My top tips for […]” are so well-read on the web. My take is that the secret ingredient may be very simple: plain, pig-headed perseverance.

By way of illustrating the benefits of this approach (and closing this article), here I am having achieved my own personal goal on Green Wall Essential… EVENTUALLY!!!

Me a very happy boulderer having completed my project.
Me a very happy boulderer having completed my project.

I wish you luck with your own projects, be these in business intelligence, other areas of IT, change management, or even bouldering. My own “Top tip” – if at first you don’t succeed, persevere.
 


 
If I have whetted anyone’s appetite about bouldering, you can take a look at my partner’s bouldering blog, which contains bouldering photos and videos, together with her musings on what motivates her to climb.
 

Business Analytics vs Business Intelligence

  “Business intelligence is an over-used term that has had its day, and business analytics is now the differentiator that will allow customers to better forecast the future especially in this current economic climate.”
 
Jim Davis SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, SAS Institute Inc.
 

The above quote is courtesy of an article reported on Network World, the full piece may be viewed here.

Analytics vs Intelligence

In the same article, Mr Davis went on to add:

I don’t believe [BI is] where the future is, the future is in business analytics. Classic business intelligence questions, support reactive decision-making that doesn’t work in this economy because it can only provide historical information that can’t drive organizations forward. Business intelligence doesn’t make a difference to the top or bottom line, and is merely a productivity tool like e-mail.

The first thing to state is that the comments of this SVP put me more in mind of AVP, should we be anticipating a fight to the death between two remorseless and implacably adversarial foes? Maybe a little analysis of these comments about analytics is required. Let’s start with SAS Institute Inc. who describe themseleves thus on their web-site [with my emphasis]:

SAS is the leader in business analytics software and services, and the largest independent vendor in the business intelligence market.

It is also worth noting that the HTML title of sas.com is [again with my emphasis]:

SAS | Business Intelligence Software and Predictive Analytics

Is SAS’s CMO presaging a withdrawal from the BI market, or simply trashing part of the company’s business, it is hard to tell. But what are the differences between Business Intelligence and Business Analytics and are the two alternative approaches, or merely different facets of essentially the same thing?

To start with, let’s see what the font of all knowledge has to say about the subject:

Business Intelligence (BI) refers to skills, technologies, applications and practices used to help a business acquire a better understanding of its commercial context. Business intelligence may also refer to the collected information itself.

BI applications provide historical, current, and predictive views of business operations. Common functions of business intelligence applications are reporting, OLAP, analytics, data mining, business performance management, benchmarks, text mining, and predictive analytics.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_intelligence

and also:

Business Analytics is how organizations gather and interpret data in order to make better business decisions and to optimize business processes. […]

Analytics are defined as the extensive use of data, statistical and quantitative analysis, explanatory and predictive modeling, and fact-based decision-making. […] In businesses, analytics (alongside data access and reporting) represents a subset of business intelligence (BI).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_analytics

Rather amazingly for WikiPedia, I seem to have found two articles that are consistent with each other. Both state that business analytics is a subset of the wider area of business intelligence. Of course we are not in the scientific realm here (and WikiPedia is not a peer-reviewed journal) and the taxonomy of technologies and business tools is not set by some supranational body.

I tend to agree with the statement that business analytics is part of business intelligence, but it’s not an opinion that I hold religiously. If the reader feels that they are separate disciplines, I’m unlikely to argue vociferously with them. However if someone makes a wholly inane statement such as BI “can only provide historical information that can’t drive organizations forward”, then I may be a little more forthcoming.

Let’s employ the tried and test approach of reductio ad absurdum by initially accepting the statement:

  Business intelligence is valueless as it is only ever backward-looking because it relies upon historical information  

Where does a logical line of reasoning take us? Well what type of information does business analytics rely upon to work its magic? Presumably the answer is historical information, because unless you believe in fortune-telling, there really is no other kind of information. In the first assertion, we have that the reason for BI being valueless is its reliance on historical information. Therefore any other technology or approach that also relies upon historical information (the only kind of information as we have agreed) must be similarly compromised. We therefore arrive at a new conclusion:

  Business analytics is valueless as it is only ever backward-looking because it relies upon historical information  

Now presumably this is not the point that Mr Davis was trying to make. It is safe to say that he would probably disagree with this conclusion. Therefore his original statement must be false: Q.E.D.

Maybe the marketing terms business intelligence and business analytics (together with Enterprise Performance Management, Executive Information Systems and Decision Support Systems) should be consigned to the scrap heap and replaced by the simpler Management Information.

All areas of the somewhat splintered discipline that I work in use the past to influence the future, be that via predictive modelling or looking at whether last week’s sales figures are up or down. Pigeon-holing one element or another as backward-looking and another as forward-looking doesn’t even make much marketing sense, let alone being a tenable intellectual position to take. I think it is not unreasonable to expect more cogent commentary from the people at SAS than Mr Davis’ recent statements.
 

 
Continue reading about this area in: A business intelligence parable and The Apologists.
 

 

Some thoughts on IT-Business Alignment from the Chase Zander IT Director Forum

This Chase Zander seminar, which I earlier previewed on this site, took place yesterday evening in Birmingham. There was a full house of 20 plus IT Directors, CIOs and other senior IT managers who all engaged fully in some very stimulating and lively discussions.

As I previously mentioned, our intention in this meeting was to encourage debate and sharing of experiences and best practice between the delegates. My role was to faciliate the first session, focussed on IT-Business alignment. I started by sharing a few slides with that group that explained the research we had conducted to determine the content of the forum.

Click to view the introductory presentation
Click to view the introductory presentation as a PDF

After sharing what in my opinion was a not wholly satisfactory definition of IT-Business alignment, I opened up the floor to a discussion of what IT-Business alignment actually was and why it mattered. We used some of the other slides later in the meeting, but most of the rest of the evening was devoted to interaction between the delegates. Indeed the ensuing conversations were so wide ranging that the theme was also carried over to the second session, hosted by my associate Elliot Limb.

Territory initially covered included the suggestion that IT should be an integral part of the business, rather than a separate entity aligned to it (a theme that I covered in my earlier article Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus, which interestingly I penned after a previous Chase Zander forum, this one focussed on change management). The group also made a strong connection between IT-Business alignment and trust. A count of hands in response to the question “do you feel that you have the 100% unqualified confidence of your CEO?” revealed a mixed response and we tried to learn from the experiences of those who responded positively.

The relationship between IT and change was also debated. Some felt that IT, with its experience of project-based work, was ideally placed to drive change in organisations. Others believed that change should be a business function, with IT sticking to its more traditional role. Different organisations were in different places with respect to this issue – one attendee had indeed seen his current organisation take both approaches in the recent past. It was also agreed that there were different types of change: positive change in reaction to some threat or opportunity and the less positive change for change’s sake that can sometimes affect organisations.

Suggestions for enhancing IT-Business alignment included: being very transparent about IT service level agreements and trends in them; focussing more on relationships with senior managers, the CEO and CFO in particular; better calculating the cost of IT activities (including business resource) and using this to prioritise and even directly charge for IT services; applying marketing techniques to IT; learning to better manage business expectations, taking on more realistic workloads and knowing when to say ‘no’; and paying more attention to business processes, particularly via capability maturity modelling.

It was agreed that it generally took quite some time to establish trust between a CIO and the rest of the senior management team. This might be done by initially sorting out problems on the delivery and support side and, only once confidence had been built up, would the CIO be able to focus more on strategic and high value-added activities. This process was not always aided by the not atypical 3-5 year tenure of CIOs.

Later discussions also touched on whether CIOs would generally expect (or want to) become CEOs and, if not, why was this the case. The perspective of both the delegates and the Chase Zander staff was very interesting on this point. There was a degree of consensus formed around the statement that IT people liked taking on challenging problems, sorting them out and then moving on to the next one. While there was some overlap between this perspective and the role of a CEO in both having their hand on the tiller of an organisation and challenging the management team to meet stretch goals, there was less than a perfect fit. Maybe this factor indicated something of a different mindset in many IT professionals.

In the context of forming better relationships with business managers and IT trying to be less transactional in its dealings with other areas, the question of why there were so few women in senior IT positions also came up. This is a large topic that could spawn an entire forum in its own right.

Overall the meeting was judged to be a success. From my perspective it was also interesting to meet a good cross-section of IT professionals working in different industries and to talk about both what the different challenges that we faced and what we had in common.
 


 
Continue reading about this area in: The scope of IT’s responsibility when businesses go bad
 

Tactical Meandering

Meanders
 

  tactics /táktiks/ n.pl. 2 a the plans and means adopted in carrying out a scheme or achieving some end. (O.E.D.)  
  meander /miándər/ n. 1 a a curve in a winding river etc. b a crooked or winding path or passage. (O.E.D.)  

 
I was reminded of the expression “tactical meandering”, which I used to use quite a bit, by a thread on the LinkedIn.com Business Intelligence Group forum. The title of this was Is BI recession-proof? (as always, you need to be a member of both LinkedIn.com and the group to view this).

The conversation on the thread turned to the fact that, in the current economic climate, there may be less focus on major, strategic BI initiatives and more on quick, tactical ones that address urgent business needs.

My take on this is that it is a perfectly respectable approach, indeed it is one that works pretty well in my experience regardless of the economic climate. There is however one proviso, that the short-term work is carried out with one eye on a vision of what the future BI landscape will look like. Of course this assumes that you have developed such a vision in the first place, but if you haven’t why are you talking about business intelligence when report writing is probably what you are engaged in (regardless of how fancy the tools may be that you are using to deliver these).

I talked about this specific area extensively in my earlier article, Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI and also offered some more general thoughts in Vision vs Pragmatism. In keeping with the latter piece, and although the initial discussions referred to above related to BI, I wanted to use this article to expand the scope to some other sorts of IT projects (and maybe to some non-IT projects as well).

Some might argue (as people did on the LinkedIn.com thread) that all tactical work has to be 100% complementary to you strategic efforts. I would not be so absolute. To me you can wander quite some way from your central goals if it makes sense to do so in order to meet pressing business requirements in a timely and cost-effective manner. The issue is not so much how far you diverge from your established medium-term objectives, but that you always bear these in mind in your work. Doing something that is totally incompatible with your strategic work and even detracts from it may not be sensible (though it may sometimes still be necessary), but delivering value by being responsive to current priorities demonstrates your flexibility and business acumen; two characteristics that you probably want people to associate with you and your team.

Tactical meandering sums up the approach pretty well in my opinion. A river can wander a long way from a line drawn from its source to its mouth. Sometimes it can bend a long way back on itself in order to negotiate some obstacle. However, the ultimate destination is set and progress towards it continues, even if this is sometimes tortuous.

Oxbow Lake Formation
Oxbow Lake Formation

Expanding on the geographic analogy, sometimes meanders become so extreme that the river joins back to its main course, cutting off the loop and leaving an oxbow lake on one side. This is something that you will need to countenance in your projects. Sometimes an approach, or a technology, or a system was efficacious at a point in time but now needs to be dropped, allowing the project to move on. These eventualities are probably inevitable and the important thing is to flag up their likelihood in advance and to communicate clearly when they occur.

My experience is that, if you keep you strategic direction in mind, the sum of a number of tactical meanders can advance you quite some way towards your goals; importantly adding value at each step. The quickest path from A to B is not always a straight line.
 

The specific benefits of Business Intelligence in Insurance

Introduction

Insurance

Insurance – specifically Property Casualty Insurance – is the industry that I have worked within for the last twelve years. During this time, I managed teams spanning IT, Finance and Operations. However the successes that I am most proud of have been in the related fields of Business Intelligence and Cultural Transformation that appear in the title of this blog.

I have described various aspects of this work elsewhere, for example in The EMIR Project and my collection of articles on Cultural Transformation. I have also written about the general benefits of good Business Intelligence for any organisation. This article focuses on the business benefits of BI that are specific to the Insurance industry.
 
 
Of pigs and men

  Insure /insho′or/ v.tr. 1 secure the payment of a sum of money in the event of loss or damage to property, life a person etc. (O.E.D.)  

Insurance is all about risk; evaluating risk, transferring risk, reducing risk. The essentials of the industry can be appreciated via a rather colourful fable provided in Success in Insurance (S.R. Diacon and R.L. Carter). This tale was originally told by someone at The Association of British Insurers:

Once upon a time there were 11 men; each of them owned a pig.

Unexpectedly one of the pigs died. The owner could not afford £90 for a new pig and so he had to leave the country and go to work in the town instead. The remaining 10 men went to see a wise man. ‘It could happen to any of us,’ they said. ‘What can we do?’

‘Could you each afford £10 for a new pig if your pig died?’ asked the wise man. They all agreed that they could manage that. ‘Very well,’ said the wise man. ‘If you each give me £10, I’ll buy you a pig if yours dies this year.’ They all agreed.

That year one pig did die. The price of pigs had gone up to £95 by now, but the wise man replaced the pig, so none of the men suffered and the wise man had £5 left for the trouble and risk he had taken.

 
 
Pricing Insurance products

Pricing

Of course in the above example, there were two crucial factors for the wise man. First the outcome that only one pig actually died; if instead there had been two pig-related fatalities, the perhaps less-wise man would have been out-of-pocket by £90. Second, the related issue of him setting the price of the pig Insurance policy at £10; if it had been set at £9 he would again have suffered a loss. It is clear that it takes a wise man to make accurate predictions about future events and charge accordingly. In essence this is one thing that makes Insurance different to many other areas of business.

If you work in manufacturing, your job will of course have many challenges, but determining how much it costs to make one of your products should not be one of them. The constituent costs are mostly known and relatively easy to add up. They might include things such as: raw materials and parts; factory space and machinery; energy; staff salaries and benefits; marketing and advertising; and distribution. Knowing these amounts, it should be possible to price a product in such a way that revenue from sales normally exceeds costs of production.

In Insurance a very large part of the cost of production is, by definition, not known at the point at which prices are set. This is the amount that will eventually be paid out in claims; how many new pigs will need to be bought in the example above. If you consider areas such as asbestosis, it can immediately be seen that the cost of Insurance policies may be spread over many years or even decades. The only way to predict the eventual costs of an Insurance product with any degree of confidence, and thereby set its price, is to rely upon historical information to make informed predictions about future claims activity.

By itself, this aspect of Insurance places enormous emphasis on the availability of quality information to drive decisions, but there are other aspects of Insurance that reinforce this basic need.
 
 
Distribution strategy

Insurance Broker

In most areas of commerce the issue of how you get your product to market is a very important one. In Insurance, there are a range of questions in this area. Do you work with brokers or direct with customers? Do you partner with a third party – e.g. a bank, a supermarket or an association – to reach their customers?

Even for Insurance companies that mostly or exclusively work with brokers, which brokers? The broker community is diverse ranging from the large multinational brokers; to middle-sized organisations, that are nevertheless players in a given country or line of business; and to small independent brokers, with a given specialism or access to a niche market. Which segment should an Insurance company operate with, or should it deal with all sectors, but in different ways?

The way to determine an effective broker strategy is again through information about how these relationships have performed and in which ways they are trending. Sharing elements of this type of high-quality information with brokers (of course just about the business placed with them) is also a good way to deepen business relationships and positions the Insurer as a company that really understands the risks that it is underwriting.
 
 
Changing risks

The changing face of risk
The changing face of risk

At the beginning of this article I stated that Insurance is all about risk. As in the pig fable, it is about policy holders reducing their risk by transferring this to an Insurance company that pools these with other risks. External factors can impinge on this risk transfer. Hurricane season is is always a time of concern for Insurance companies with US property exposures, but over the last few years we have had our share of weather-related problems in Europe as well. The area of climate change is one that directly impinges upon Insurers and better understanding its potential impact is a major challenge for them.

With markets, companies, supply-chains and even labour becoming more global, Insurance programmes increasingly cover multiple countries and Insurance companies need to be present in more places (generally a policy covering risks in a country has to be written by a company – or subsidiary – based in that country). This means that Insurance professionals can depend less on first-hand experience of risks that may be on the other side of the world and instead need reliable and consistent information about trends in books of business.

The increasingly global aspect of Insurance also brings into focus different legal and regulatory regimes, which both directly impinge on Insurers and change the profile of risks faced by their customers. As we are experiencing in the current economic crisis, legal and regulatory regimes can sometimes change rapidly, altering exposures and impacting on pricing.

The present economic situation affects Insurance in the same ways that it does all companies, but there are also some specific Insurance challenges. First of all, with the value of companies declining in most markets, there is likely to be an uptick in litigation, leading to an increase in claims against Directors and Officers policies. Also falling property values mean that less Insurance is required to cover houses and factories, leading to a contraction in the market. Declining returns in equity and fixed income markets mean that one element of Insurance income – the return on premiums invested in the period between them being received and any claims being paid out – has become much less.

So shifts in climate, legal and regulatory regimes and economic conditions all present challenges in how risk is managed; further stressing the importance of excellent business intelligence in Insurnace.
 
 
The Insurance Cycle

If this litany of problems was not enough to convince the reader of the necessity of good information in Insurance, there is one further issue which makes managing all of the above issues even more complex. This is the fact that Insurance is a cyclical industry.

An example of The Insurance Cycle
An example of The Insurance Cycle

The above chart (which I put together based on data from Tillinghast) shows the performance of the London Marine Insurance market as a whole between 1985 to 2002. If you picked any other market in any other location, you would get a similar sinusoidal curve, though there might well be phase differences as the cycles for different types of Insurance are not all in lock-step.

To help readers without a background in Insurance, the ratio displayed is essentially a measure of the amount of money going out of an Insurance Company (mostly its operating expenses plus claims) divided by the amount of money coming in (mostly Insurance premiums). This is called the combined ratio. A combined ratio less than 100% broadly indicates a profit and one above 100% broadly indicates a loss.

It may be seen that the London Marine market as a whole has swung from profit to loss, to profit, to loss and back to profit over these 18 years. This article won’t cover the drivers of this phenomenon in any detail, but one factor is that when profits are being made, more capital is sucked into the market, which increases capacity, drives down costs and eventually erodes profitability. As with many things in life rather than stopping at break-even, this process overshoots resulting in losses and the withdrawal of capital. Prices then rise and profitability returns, starting a new cycle.

Given this environmental background to the Insurance business, it is obvious that it is very important to an Insurance company to work out its whereabouts in the cycle at any time. It is particularly crucial to anticipate turning points because this is when corporate strategies may need to change very rapidly. There may be a great opportunity for defence to change to attack, alternatively a previously expansionary strategy may need to be reined in order to weather a more trying business climate.

In order to make predictions about the future direction of the cycle, there is no substitute for having good information and using this to make sound analyses.
 
 
Summary

I hope that the article has managed to convey some of the special challenges faced by Insurance companies and why many of these dramatically increase the value of good business intelligence.

Essentially Insurance is all about making good decisions. Should I underwrite this newly presented risk? Should I renew an existing policy or not? What price should I set for a policy? When should I walk away from business? When should I aggressively expand? All of these decisions are wholly dependent on having high-quality information and because of this business intelligence can have an even greater leverage in Insurance than in other areas of industry.

Given this it is not unreasonable to state in closing that while good information is essential to any organisation, it is the very lifeblood of an Insurance company. My experience is that Business Intelligence offers the best way to meet these pressing business needs.
 


 
You can read more about my thoughts on Business Intelligence and Insurance in:

  1. Using historical data to justify BI investments – Part I
  2. Using historical data to justify BI investments – Part II
  3. Using historical data to justify BI investments – Part III


 

Short-term “Trouble for Big Business Intelligence Vendors” may lead to longer-term advantage

linkedin Chief Information Officer (CIO) Network

This post is another that highlights responses I have made on various LinkedIn.com forums. In this case, a news article was posted on the Chief Information Officer (CIO) Network group (as ever you need to be a member of LinkedIn.com and the group to view the original thread).

The news article itself linked to a piece / podcast on The IT-Finance Connection entitled: Big BI Vendors Facing Big Challenges. In this Nigel Pendse, author of the anual BI Survey, was interviewed by IT-Finance Connection about his latest publication and his thoughts about the BI market in general.

Nigel speaks about issues that he sees related to the consolidation of BI vendors. In his opinion this has led to the big players paying more attention to integrating acquisitions and rationalising product lines instead of focusing on customer needs. In one passage, he says:

Within product development, the main theme moved from innovation to integration. So, instead of delivering previously promised product enhancements to existing customers, product releases came out late and the highlights were the new connections to other products owned by the vendor, but which were probably not used by the existing customers. In other words, product development was driven by the priorities of the vendor, not the customer.

Whilst there is undoubtedly truth in Nigel’s observations, I have a slightly different slant on them, which I offered in my comments:

It is my very strong opinion that what the users of BI need to derive value is not the BI vendors “delivering previously promised product enhancements” but using the already enormously extensive capabilities of their existing BI tools better. BI should not be a technology-driven area, the biggest benefits come from BI departments getting to know their users’ needs better and focusing on these rather than the latest snazzy tool.

If this does happen, it may mean less than brilliant news for the BI vendors’ sales in the short-term, but successful BI implementations are going to be a better advert for them than some snazzy BI n.0 feature. The former is more likely to drive revenues for them in the medium term as companies build on successes and expand the scope of their existing BI systems.

See also: BI implementations are like icebergs

While some people see large potential downsides in the acquisition of such companies as BusinessObjects, Hyperion and Cognos by large, non-BI companies, you could argue that their new owners are the sort of organisations that will aim to use BI to drive real-world business success. Who knows whether they will be successful, but if they are and this is at the expense of technological innovation, then I think that this is a reasonable sacrifice.

As to whose vision of the future is right, I guess only time will tell.