Month: November 2009

Why tools take root, or not

The people in an audience who ask what seems like a rude question are often the ones worth listening to. Take, for example, one guy I heard recently. He talked about his old movie camera — which was relevant to the subject, cinema — but his question had parallels with a perennial issue in BI.

He said that he had had a Bolex 16-milimeter movie camera back when he was a kid, and so anyone else could have, too. To him, the idea that new technology like small video cameras and inexpensive desktop editing was now unleashing a burst of moviemaking was just not true. “It’s nonsense. You know it is,” he told the Oscar-winner Walter Murch, who sat listening patiently on stage.

I didn’t write down Murch’s reply, but I have my own: Great as the Bolex may have been, amateur filmmaking back then was slow, expensive, and lonely. There were no swarms of fellow filmmakers and no audience on YouTube. Bolex Schmolex.

Cinema, and business, depend on more than technology.

Murch’s main point, which he explained for almost an hour, was about cinema’s quick success a century ago. It took off, he said, because the popular culture was prepared for it, not just because the technology had arrived.

Just one of the “three fathers of cinema,” as Murch calls them, had anything to do with the technology: Thomas Edison. Beethoven, and introduced dynamism into music instead of the ordered music of Haydn and Mozart. Also Flaubert, another name as shorthand for the new painters and fiction writers who discarded fantasy and aristocratic life for everyday reality.

Does he mean that everyone in the bargain matinee seats a Beethoven fan? No, but I wish I’d asked how it worked. For now, I go with the teabag theory: a bit of pungent herbs have a way of permeating the surrounding medium. Just ask Sarah Palin.

From Beethoven’s dynamism, it’s a short leap into the vocabulary we know today: fast cuts, close-ups followed by panoramas, stories interlaced with other stories, and so on.

Imagine a tool that falls into a culture that’s not ready. Say some ancient toymaker invented the wheel but for centuries afterward the adults kept dragging freight around on sleds. That’s apparently what the Aztecs did. Same thing happened to the steam engine invented by the Greeks.

I wish I could raise my hand now to ask Murch a few questions: For example, could cinema have taken root with a Mozartian vocabulary instead of a Beethovenian one? I suppose we’d have nothing like “Citizen Kane” and a lot of films like “This is My Railroad” (1940; Southern Pacific).

Who can say about movies, though? It’s much easier to speculate whether BI can take root in an organization with no fathers or mothers of data analysis.

You know it when they dance

Here’s that eternal question again: how do you know when whatever you’re working on is good enough? Today, two perspectives.

The Oscar-winning sound designer Walter Murch, speaking Friday night at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael California, told about talking shop with Michael Jackson’s engineers. They told Murch that they had no special insight, they just tried one mix after another as Jackson sat in the back, silent. They knew they had it right when he got up and danced.

The other way was the General Motors way. They took forever, and sometimes simply stopped trying when the bureaucracy’s deadline came. A recent New York Times article explains why GM cars never made anyone want to dance, or at least not me.

“We measured ourselves ten ways from Sunday … But as soon as everything is important, nothing is important.” [director of G.M.’s vehicle engineers]

Decisions were made, if at all, at a glacial pace, bogged down by endless committees, reports and reviews that astonished members of President Obama’s auto task force.

In the old G.M., any changes to a product program would be reviewed by as many as 70 executives, often taking two months for a decision to wind its way through regional forums, then to a global committee, and finally to the all-powerful automotive products board.

Nobody lives forever, but make sure you dance while you can.

Keeping people engaged

How refreshing to stumble into a trade show that has its eyes on users and their collaboration. Enterprise 2.0 came to San Francisco early this month, and I liked what I saw.

Take, for example, Liquid Planner, the hosted project manager. Unlike conventional planners, it makes no demand for the single completion date, so laughable in practice. This planner avoids roulette thinking by asking instead for a range of dates — much easier to believe in.

“One of the biggest problems in business is keeping people engaged,” says Liquid Planner CEO Charles Seybold. “If they’re not engaged, they go away.” They disown data they’re supposed to engage with, and that accelerates their drift away from corporate goals.

The planner also makes use of collaboration in email, Twitter, and other media to measure progress, obstacles, and project creep. Did you and a bunch of coworkers sketch a revised timeline on a paper napkin at lunch? Even that could be scanned and added to the mix.

“It’s all about people working together,” says Seybold. “It’s all social” — an obvious but usually ignored fact about business.

Other vendors make more general use of social media. SocialText, for example, picks up on social media to give overall business collaboration a push. It’s already got about 5,000 customers around the world, according to the man at the SocialText booth who rattled off the features: an iGoogle-like dashboard, secure and selective access, open standards, and so on. The pricing looked engaging, too: free for operations with fewer than 50 users, then $5 per user per month.

Away from the exhibition, 116 attendees packed a room to hear Linden Labs announce a business version of its virtual world Second Life, Second Life Enterprise.

Remember when people were impressed with a computer singing “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do”? The virtual meeting Linden Labs used in the announcement will someday be compared to TV productions of the early ’50s. Eventually, Second Life Enterprise will work out the kinks and start to walk, run, sing, and dance. As I wrote in May, someday we’ll see serious what-if scenario gaming.

This is the future of intelligent business.

No wizard, just you and the data

What’s the hardest part of training a new data analyst? Resetting the trainee’s mindset.

“They start out with the idea that there’s a right answer,” says Joe Mako.

Joe’s leaving his job — where about one year ago he began analyzing data — to go work for the producer of Lyza. Lyzasoft CEO Scott Davis sees him as a “prototype” of a kind of creative, resourceful analyst that Lyza was designed for. Joe will engage with other analysts to evangelize Lyza and to help new users ease into the flow.

Joe, 29 and a veteran of two Army tours in Iraq, started out on the help desk. He answered calls from within the company, an ISP. Many callers couldn’t or wouldn’t analyze their own data, so Joe did it for them. His boss also enlisted his help — and now won’t dare go without a backup.

The first people he’ll help get into the flow are the two women who’re replacing him, and he’s got to do before he starts at Lyzasoft on November 9. They’re some of only a few in the his group who applied. Most others refused the “boring” work with “ugly” data.

New users, he says, want to know, “Where’s my wizard?” There is none. “But that’s why I enjoy these tools.” He uses Lyza and Tableau primarily. “They stay out of my way. They enable me. It’s just me and the data. … That’s what’s neat. But [new users] don’t know where to start.”

“I’m handed crazy files without any structure,” he says. The first thing new users have to know is that, no matter how ugly the data may be, it really can be cleaned up. He demonstrated to his new trainees, he says, and “they were blown away.” After that, he started showing them how they can clean up data on their own.

He explained basic steps and functions. Then he showed them how to combine tools, such as how to use two functions in sequence. And deeper still.

“It takes time playing to figure out where you need to get to,” he says. “You have to just go and play. If one thing doesn’t work, you try something else.”

“I always thought that data was exact,” he says. “If not, it was garbage and I’d throw it out.” But he later learned that there’s usually only a portion that’s garbage — that somewhere within the crazy mess there’s a story. “Even if every data point is wrong, there still might be some trend you can see. If there’s a bunch of ugly data, how do you figure what he story is?” It takes a willingness to figure it out, to untangle it, to find out what’s in there.

That’s a skill, not a talent, he says. “I’ve watched [his two replacements] get it closer and closer, learning to merge other data in, to reshape it and finally produce the output.”

Closer and closer. Business will trudge ahead, training a Joe here and a Joe there until people don’t complain anymore about boring work with ugly data. Someday, many more people will welcome the chance to do this work.