I have some form when it comes to getting irritated by quasi-mathematical social media memes (see Facebook squares “puzzle” for example). Facebook, which I find myself using less and less frequently these days, has always been plagued by clickbait articles. Some of these can be rather unsavoury. One that does not have this particular issue, but which more than makes up for this in terms of general annoyance, is the many variants of:
Only a math[s] genius can solve [insert some dumb problem here] – can u?
Life is too short to complain about Facebook content, but this particular virus now seems to have infected LinkedIn (aka MicrosoftedIn) as well. Indeed as LinkedIn’s current “strategy” seems to be to ape what Facebook was doing a few years ago, perhaps this is not too surprising. Nevertheless, back in the day, LinkedIn used to be a reasonably serious site dedicated to networking and exchanging points of view with fellow professionals.
Those days appear to be fading fast, something I find sad. It seems that a number of people agree with me as – at the time of writing – over 9,000 people have viewed a LinkedIn article I briefly penned bemoaning this development. While some of the focus inevitably turned to general scorn being heaped on the new LinekdIn user experience (UX), it seemed that most people are of the same opinion as I am.
However, I suspect that there is little to be done and the folks at LinkedIn probably have their hands full trying to figure out how to address their UX catastrophe. Given this, I thought that if you can’t beat them, join them. So above appears my very own Mathematical meme, maybe it will catch on.
It should be noted that in this case “Less than 1% can do it!!!” is true, in the strictest sense. Unlike the original meme, so is the first piece of text!
After 100s of views on my blog, 1,000s of views on LinkedIn and 10,000s of views on Twitter, it took Neil Raden (@NeilRaden) to point out that in the original image I had the sum running from n=0 as opposed to n=1. The former makes no sense whatsoever. I guess his company is called Hired Brains for a reason! This was meant to be a humorous post, but at least part of the joke is now on me.
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 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 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.
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.
I think that the perspective of actuaries having been data scientists long before the latter term emerged is a sound one.
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 and IT staff with strong business knowledge 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.
A link to the actual discussion thread is provided here. However You need to be a member of the TDWI Group to view this.
Anyone interested in ancient history is welcome to take a look at the following articles from a few years back:
Back in April 2009, at the height of the Oracle / Sun fervour, I added a new section to reflect the number of articles I was writing about general technology issues such as these and also BI industry news. This was as follows:
In a similar vein, I have recently been writing more about issues in Social Media (very self-referential for a blog of course). I have also had my artciles syndicated on SmartDataCollective.com for many months.
As with the other sections, I will keep this list up-to-date as I add new content. In particular my forthcoming pieces on micro-blogging with Twitter.com and professional networking on LinkedIn.com will have a shiny new home.
I established this blog back in November 2008 – shortly after this I joined twitter.com in December 2008 – I had already been a member of LinkedIn.com since July 2005. However, my involvement with what is now collectively called social media goes back a lot further than this. Back then we tended to use the phrase on-line communities to describe what we were engaged in.
My first foray into this new world was in 1998/99 when I joined a, now defunct, discussion forum (then known as a Bulletin Board). This was focused on computer games. I wasn’t terribly in to such games at the time, I didn’t own a console and my PC was used for more prosaic purposes. Nevertheless, for reasons that I will not bore the reader with, I signed up. Since then I have been a member of a number of on-line forums, mostly with some sporting element, for example rock climbing.
In May 1999, my forum activities led me to creating my first web-site (again now also defunct). I started on Geocities (another chance to use the word “defunct”) and then moved to having my own domain and an agreement with a hosting company. I even ended up jointly running a very successful forum with an on-line friend from Australia. Back then the men were real men, the women were real women and the HTML was real HTML. However this article is not about ancient history, but rather about my more recent experiences in social media.
Nowadays, nobody seems to think of it as being odd that you regularly “speak” to people you have never met and who inhabit countries on the other side of the world. People do not slowly back away from you at parties if you drop the fact that you have your own web-site into a conversation (though maybe one reason that the portmanteau of web-log became socially acceptable is that its abridgement to blog sounds the opposite of technological). It was not always thus and maybe I retain something of the spirit of those pioneering days. For example, I am currently typing these words into the HTML pane of WordPress.com. Old habits die hard and WYSIYWG is for softies!
Social media is now mainstream – in fact you could argue that it is real life that has become a minority activity – and things are a lot easier. Although I doggedly insist on still cutting HTML, you can be up and running with a fairly professional-looking blog on WordPress in minutes and without having to know much about any of the technical underpinnings. Software as a Service certainly works really well as an approach to blogging.
Over a number of articles, I am going to touch upon my recent experience of Social Media in the three areas that I first mentioned at the beginning: blogging, micro-blogging and professional networking. Without fully revealing the denouement of this series, I will state now that one of the most interesting things is how well these three areas work in combination and how mutually reinforcing they have become for me. The sequence starts with my thoughts on blogging.
WordPress and Motivation
I suppose I have to thank my partner for getting me in to this area as she started her blog long before any of mine. However, having suffered a couple of climbing-related injuries I started my own training blog, both to chart my recovery and to act as a motivational tool.
I started out using Blogger as that was what my partner had used, but got rather frustrated with its lack of support for some basic HTML constructs (e.g. tables). A friend suggested WordPress instead and this became the venue for my training blog. Somewhat amazingly this is not defunct. However, after a period when I religiously posted at least once or twice every week, I haven’t updated it in a long while.
When I wanted to start a professional blog, WordPress seemed the way to go and I have been mostly happy with my choice. But what were my motivations for blogging about business-related issues? I guess that there were a few of these, in no particular order:
I like writing and the idea of doing this in a more general context than internal strategy papers and memoranda seemed appealing.
Based on the feedback I had received from my public speaking, I believed that I had quite a lot of relevant experience to draw on which might make interesting reading; at least for a niche audience.
Although it would be fair to say that I started writing mostly for myself, over time the idea of building a blog following seemed like a challenge and I like challenges.
In this same category of emergent motivation, after a short while the notion of establishing a corpus of work, spanning my ideas about a range of issues also became a factor. Maybe some element of Narcissism is present in most blogging.
There was a big slice of simple curiosity about the area, how it worked and how I could be a part of it. You get some interaction in public speaking, but I was intrigued by the idea of getting the benefit of the input of a wider range of people.
So I leapt in with both feet and my first article was based on some reflections on attending a Change Management seminar. It was entitled Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus and dealt with what I see as an artificial divide between IT and business groups. I suppose it makes sense to start as you mean to go on and IT / Business alignment has been a theme running through much of what I have written.
Things that I have learnt so far
In a subsequent piece, Recipes for success?, I expressed my scepticism about articles of the type “My Top Ten Tips for Successful Blogging”, so the following is not meant to be a set of precepts to be followed to the last letter. Instead, with the benefit of over 60,000 page views (small beer compared to many blogs), here are some things that have worked for me. If some of these chime with your own experience, then great. If others are not pertinent to you, then this is only to be expected.
Finally I should also stress that these observations relate mostly to professional blogs, for personal blogs there are essentially no constraints on your creativity (assuming that the results of this are legal of course).
Write about areas that you know something about. You don’t have to be a world authority, but on a professional blog, no one is going to be that interested in your fevered speculations on something that you know nothing about. This is one of many reasons that you will never see me blogging about IT Infrastructure!
When you blog about an area of personal expertise, then you can be pretty free in expressing your opinions, though [note to self] a dose of humility never did anyone any harm.
When the subject is one in which your own knowledge is less well-developed (for me something like text analytics would fall into this category), then seek out the opinions of experts in the field and quote these (even if you disagree with them). Linking to the places that experts have expressed their thoughts also expands you network and increases the utility of your blog, which becomes part of a wider world.
It helps if you are interested in the majority of the topics that you cover. If you are unmotivated about something, them why write about it? If you decide to do so for some reason (maybe because you haven’t written anything else this week, or because a piece of news is “hot” at present) then your personal ennui will seep into your words and be evident to your readers. No doubt it will generate similar feelings in them.
Beyond the previous point, I would go further and say that it is crucial that you are truly passionate about at least one thing that you write about and ideally several. Expressing strong opinions is fine, assuming that you have some reason for holding them and that you remain open to the ideas of other people. For me, these areas of passion are Business Intelligence, its intimate connection with Cultural Transformation and the related area of IT / Business Alignment.
Passion is not only important because it will hopefully infuse your words, but because it will sustain you returning to write about these areas over a long period of time. There are an awful lot of blogs out there where a bright beginning has petered out because the author had nothing left to say, or has lost interest.
For the same reasons relating to sustaining your blog, I would recommend being yourself. If you really want to present an alternative personality to the world, then good luck to you (and your therapist), you will have to possess enormous perseverance and be a very talented actor.
For me this means the presence of strong elliptical and eclectic qualities to my articles. I can do terse and to the point when it is necessary, but circumlocution is more my stock-in-trade. I’m more comfortable being myself and if this means my audience is one composed of people yearning for elliptic, eclectic, circumlocutory writing, then so be it!
To me being yourself extends to the quantity of your writing. In an era sometimes characterised as one of short attention spans and instant gratification, the orthodox advice is to be punchy and direct. Sometimes the point I want to make in one of my articles (assuming that I can remember what this is by the time I get to the end of writing it) takes some time to develop – like a fine wine I like to think (or a mould the less kind might add).
This means that my writing tends to resemble the River Amazon in both its meandering nature and length. I appreciate that this narrows my potential audience, but hope that it also means that at least a few people get some more out of it than they would from the CliffsNotes version.
Blogging should also be about interaction. If you simply want to broadcast your incredibly wise thoughts, then write a book. I hope that some of the pieces that I write spur others to record their own thoughts, either as comments here, or in their own blog articles. If some of my ideas make it into other people’s PowerPoint decks or project proposals, then I am honoured.
Equally, virtually everything that I write has been inspired to some degree by other people: co-workers, authors, the people that I come into contact with on the Internet and in real life on a daily basis and so on. I try to explicitly acknowledge (and link to) what has inspired me when I write, but I am sure that thousands of unconscious influencers go un-credited.
While passion and having opinions contribute to developing your own voice, it is important to never think that you have all the answers. In a blogging context this means treating anyone who has taken the time to comment on your writing with the respect that this act deserves. While starting a conversation is clearly the best outcome of someone commenting on your blog, a simple ‘thank you’ from the author should be the very least that you can offer (when people whinge about the England cricket team having cheated their way to victory, this is an obvious exception to the rule).
In this area I also try to avoid deleting comments that are derogatory about my ideas. The approach I take is rather to either seek further clarification on why the contributor thinks this way, or to politely argue why I still believe that the points that I have made are valid. Of course I have not always 100% lived up to this aspiration!
As in virtually every aspect of life, treating others as you would like to be treated yourself is not a bad approach. If you enjoy people commenting on your articles or linking to your blog, then maybe proactively doing these things yourself is a good idea. I don’t mean adding comments purely for the sake of it; that sounds awfully like spam. But if you read something that you find interesting, then thank the author.
Better still, augment what they have written with your own ideas – either on their blog or in a piece on your own site that links back to their article. Even in this day and age, it is amazing how far being nice to people can get you. For the same reason, try to be as polite on-line as you would be in your more traditional professional life.
[Yes I am aware of the irony of having ten bullet points here!]
Finally, I mentioned the Narcissistic tendencies that can either be a cause or effect of blogging. I think that trying to not take yourself too seriously is a must as an antidote to this. Both the medium and my prose can veer towards the preachy sometimes, so some well-placed self-deprecation to balance this never goes amiss.
I hope that some readers will have been interested in my observations and that they will have helped a further subset of these in their blogging. For those who are pondering whether to join the blogosphre, my simple advice is give it a go. You will either hate it or love it, but at least you won’t die wondering “what if?”
The New Adventures in Wi-Fi series of articles on Social Media continues by discussing the relatively new world of micro-blogging and the phenomenon that is Twitter here.