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BI for the lone wolf

Three years ago, I spent four months in my Sicilian grandmother’s home town editing a book I had begun to hate. Time cues were sparse: church bells four times an hour, a nearby friend who dropped in for coffee once a day, and cannoli once a week. I could easily come to the end of a week without having made a single edit. So I built myself a timekeeper in FileMaker Pro.

At first, the dismal results came in every day: When I felt that I had put in a good five or six hours of steady work, the end-of-day tally—with all the breaks for email, meals, snacks, and quick walks—usually amounted to about two hours of actual work.

That’s what got me thinking. Who says one-person operations can’t use business intelligence?

I don’t want MicroStrategy to outfit my tiny office, now near San Francisco, with its latest and greatest. No, but I do want a company like Intuit, ever more interested in the one-person market, to understand that money isn’t the only data individuals should track.

Time isn’t money, it’s more important than that. Productive time is the most consistent leading indicator there is. Waste your time and you’ll have no money to track.

This is business intelligence for the lone wolf, even the herded wolf.

Sure, you can use your own FileMaker setup or any of those client-billing applications. You click this button to start a billing period and that one to end it. But that takes discipline. I don’t know about you, but I exert every ounce of mine on staying on the program. I forget to click the little button and, damn!, at what point did that consultant’s column send me into a stupor?

If there’s one thing I’d like to find under the Christmas tree, it’s an application that does personal performance analytics.

It automatically tracks and categorizes work done on the computer. Out of the office, it works on an iPhone.

It detects what time I start in the morning and what time I drift away into surfing. It knows the difference between work, goofing off or eating at my desk while I scan email.

It considers all the clues to take a guess. The little brain inside says, “Let’s see, he was clicking away at Word until 9:21…” After that point, its log shows no phone calls, no Web pages downloading, no email opened or sent. The little microphone detected less noise than usual at 9:22, so no visitors had come by. “Hmm, let’s mark it at 9:21 and see what he says.”

A more forgiving “preferences” setting might guess a few minutes later. Like a loyal assistant, it would offer its guesses for review and approval.

“Sir, I would say you had a less than productive day yesterday. Am I correct?”

“No, you fool! I was thinking!”

“How much of it was productive, sir?”

Time tracking is just the beginning. It would also let me define my own, weird key performance indicators. Did I hit my daily hurdle of contact attempts? Did I run? Did I spend enough time this week actually working?

It would scan every scrap of evidence it could get its hands on to detect patterns.

Once in a while, I issue a grand invitation to myself. Come and see the trends. Buffet served.

There, after “brief introductory remarks,” the application offers rich what-if visual analysis, Tableau-like. I see what times of day I actually produce the most words, talk the most, listen the most, field the most email. Correlate production of words and phone calls with arrival of checks. Correlate this or that individual with checks or mood.

It’s like a smart, statistics-savvy aide. The difference is that when a human aide finds you passed out from exhaustion, it brings you a glass of water. But I don’t want that. I’m a lone wolf, and I get it myself.

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