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Month: May 2010

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Our Department of Unwanted Customers has heard from Don Farber of KnowledgeSync about an inquiry from the Strategic Air Command.

As you may know, the KnowledgeSync tool monitors activity and generates alerts. Event A occurs and, bang, an alert flies off by email, text, perhaps even ICBM. New sales inquiry? The tool can even issue a reply.

What could SAC want to do with such automatic alerts? Don, who is VP of sales and marketing, recalls saying to his boss, “‘You can take this customer if you want to, but do you really want to take that support call?'” Nope.

He and I went on to fondly recall those two 1962 films, “Dr. Strangelove” and “Failsafe.”

Self tracking is business intelligence

Back when secretaries were common, you could have had yours track your day in 15-minute increments. In his book The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker suggested this as a way to find out what you really did all day. The results were usually, let’s say, a starting point for improvement.

Tracking your time then and now is personal, it’s messy, and it’s the essence of business intelligence: collecting data and reading it for guidance in business activities that matter. Is there anything that matters more to an organization than productivity of its people? For a small office or home-based business, this might be the best BI there is.

This gets no recognition in the BI industry that I can find, at least not in the conservative world of TDWI. At least not yet.

PI — for “private intelligence” — has different issues, starting with data collection. In BI, data comes from transactions, all recorded routinely. In PI, most of it has to come from a “secretary” or from our own, tedious notation.

I dabbled in it once. The insights were good, if painful, but mostly it was tedious. A few years ago, a confluence of personal events let me do something I’d always wanted to try: hole up for a few months in a Sicilian village I knew slightly. The food was good, I had relatives nearby, and the nearby church bells rang all day and all night, four times an hour. At the same time, I had a book to edit. To stay productive, I made a game out of the work, tracking my time to the minute in Filemaker.

I liked the local food and started to hate the book, an office manual that inadvertently revealed a con game. Even so, I threw myself at it every day. But no matter how hard I tried, no full day ever resulted in more than about two hours of actual, productive work. My “quick breaks” for walks and coffee with a friend actually took up more time.

I made a Filemaker database because I could find no off-the-shelf product that would do anything close. Each period, no matter how short, had a starting and ending times I entered with buttons, and a calculation field figured the duration. A drop-down menu offered my usual activites. I could make a report for any period.

I thought some product would do that better, but I could find nothing. Then the May 2 issue of the New York Times Magazine ran an article by Gary Wolf about this, “The Data Driven Life.” My Filemaker invention wasn’t too far from what others have used, and now new devices are coming along that could make all that seem so old hat. Some people are even sharing their data on the cloud.

But as in traditional BI, the technology just gets you in the door. The show has just begun.

Most people Wolf writes about do it for personal reasons. One wanted to know how his coffee consumption helped him focus, another tried to cure his sleep apnea, and still another noticed that flax seed oil, or just lots of butter, improved his cognitive performance.

As in good BI, the experiments often raised new questions. And sometimes the new questions are unexpected, as in Wolf’s own experience.

Often, pioneering trackers struggle with feelings of being both aided and tormented by the very systems they have built. I know what this is like. I used to track my work hours, and it was a miserable process. With my spreadsheet, I inadvertently transformed myself into the mean-spirited, small-minded boss I imagined I was escaping through self- employment. Taking advantage of the explosion of self-tracking services available on the Web, I started analyzing my workday at a finer level. Every time I moved to a new activity — picked up the phone, opened a Web browser, answered e-mail — I made a couple of clicks with my mouse, which recorded the change. After a few weeks I looked at the data and marveled. My day was a patchwork of distraction, interspersed with valuable, but too rare, periods of focus. In total, the amount of uninterrupted close attention I was able to muster in a given workday was less than three hours. After I got over the humiliation, I came to see how valuable this knowledge was. The efficiency lesson was that I could gain significant benefit by extending my day at my desk by only a few minutes, as long as these minutes were well spent. But a greater lesson was that by tracking hours at my desk I was making an unnecessary concession to a worthless stereotype. Does anybody really believe that long hours at a desk are a vocational ideal? I got nothing from my tracking system until I used it as a source of critical perspective, not on my performance but on my assumptions about what was important to track.

I wish Drucker were around to respond. Wolf’s insight sounds like important stuff for everyday knowledge workers, especially those who work alone. What’s more important to a knowledge worker than time?

These experiments are often haphazard and highly personal.

Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions. But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever.

Yes, just as analytics gives companies a tremendous advantage over those who make less effort.

Let the BI traditionalists pooh-pooh self-tracking. The very same people might have dismissed such things as visual analysis, agile development, and at one time even business intelligence itself. Sometimes it take a few pioneers and geeks, perhaps even a secretary, to prove a concept.

Lyzasoft says “power to the people” with free version

It was International Workers’ Day on Saturday and the official release day of Lyzasoft’s latest product: its foray into “free.” It’s a good way to say “power to the people.”

Some people associate that slogan with protests and even violence. But I think the best paths to power usually involve well-analyzed data, whether in public life or at work. Now the Little Guy has a potent new tool to deploy.

Lyzasoft founder Scott Davis calls Lyza on Lyza Commons [discontinued] “the YouTube of data.” This fully functional cloud-based version of Lyza is a strong tool for office-based, home-based, cubbyhole-based, dorm-based, or public library wifi-based users and groups. Import your data from whatever sources you have, refine it, share it with to whomever you like, and even charge toll over Paypal if you want to.

“Obviously,” Scott says, “what we’re doing is saying, ‘This thing can scale.’ But instead of going for the uber-enterprise as our leading play, we’re saying that what’s unique about this technology is it can make it to everybody within a small and medium business without having to have a big IT team around.”

Lyzasoft’s second, paid tier serves customers who need private clouds. That version starts at “small” for $150 a month, seating up to 10 users and providing “plenty” of storage. Go upward through “medium” and into “large,” and you pay $2500 a month for up to 200 users.

Wait, you say. You’ve heard this “YouTube of data” thing before. Yes, just three months ago another YouTube of data launched, Tableau Public. (I wrote about it here.) Tableau, Lyza, and YouTube itself all say “power to the people” by popularizing a medium with free, easy-to-use tools and a venue. Each one’s growing crowd of Little Guys and their audiences turns into a movement that the those in executive suites can’t help but notice. At some point, YouTube and those who follow its model hope that “free” leads enough customers to “ka-ching” to yield a profit.

YouTube seems to be well on the way. Its ready-to-roll movie theater had fired the imaginations in a waiting mob. These filmmakers-to-be had been trained over years of TV and movies to understand film and crave a chance to do their own.

Is there a waiting mob of would-be data analysts? One pioneer of free analytics is skeptical. LucidEra founder Ken Rudin, now vice president of analytics at Zynga, says you need more than free tools, no matter how easy the tools are to use. He says, “Tools are only as valuable as the questions you ask.” One of his biggest hurdles was getting customers to appreciate the possibilities of analytics.

But the YouTube idea is more than tools. It’s a game and a self-reinforcing mob. The tiny films YouTube users make don’t just play as if on a jukebox, they’re scored, they’re answered, and commented on. It’s like the difference between voting in a little booth and going out on a street march. It reinforces and stimulates. Unlike most business environments, it asks people to play, which is how Lyza Commons and Tableau Public users will break out into creative and incisive data analysis.

I also hope there’s a new supply of analysts. Ken Rudin and others are hungry for them. (In fact, if you’re a data analyst and you want to work with cutting-edge technology and data in one of the world’s largest databases, email Ken today at krudin@zynga.com.)

Power to the data analysts!