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Month: June 2010

Feature lists miss the point

So many people who should know better seem to miss the point when they mention Tableau. Why? I asked BI veteran Stephen McDaniel for his thoughts — which he gave, but then went on to suggest an almost unheard of challenge: a data analysis face-off among vendors.

Consider this description by a BI analyst: “Tableau provides business analysts speed of thought visual analysis on data held in memory on their desktop machines.” All that’s fine, but it may as well have been about a whole bunch of other tools, too.

At the root of this fuzz, explained McDaniel, is that most analysts who concern themselves with tools don’t actually use the tools. They rely on demos , marketing, and hearsay.

Though much of McDaniel’s recent work has centered on Tableau — his second book is Rapid Graphs with Tableau Software and he gives training sessions around the country — he also has a long, credible trail back through BI and data mining. He was director of analytics at Netflix, and has worked with more than 50 companies in BI. His first book was SAS for Dummies.

“I love SAS,” he says. Still, he remembers his sister in law’s reaction to his book on SAS. She was not an analyst but a “people manager.” These are the ones, he says, who have hated BI because “it had been made into a priesthood.” When she had looked through the book, she said, “Oh, this is great” and put it down. But she read the Tableau book for a half hour and said, “You should come talk to some people I work with.” She had recognized what she could do with the tool.

McDaniel’s sister in law and many like her don’t care whether the data is “in memory,” they don’t see themselves as business analysts, they take “desktop” for granted, and they know “speed of thought” is just gloss.

The list of features really doesn’t matter. All that really matters is whether someone can do what needs to be done with the tool.

McDaniel imagines a throw down, a data analysis match. It would be open to any BI vendor. Each vendor would send their best people, and each team would receive a uniform set of data. Over some defined period, teams would analyze and then present the results to a panel of vendor-neutral judges.

The reward? Perhaps a signed copy of a Stephen McDaniel book, or maybe a beer, possibly both. But certainly, repute.

What do you think of the face-off idea? Please write a comment.

A reason for BI failure: knowledge requires a knower

What can explain business intelligence’s poor adoption rate? Are tools not easy to use? Or is there a deeper reason?

A book from 2000, The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, suggests that BI designers have neglected basic human needs. Jack Vinson, of Knowledge Jolt with Jack fame, has just posted a worthwhile review that sent me scurrying over to Amazon.

Failure begins early for many new, supposedly revolutionary information systems. Designers “assume that the way people operate with respect to information has to do with only the information. … But there is a social life that revolves around the information that is much harder to capture and codify,” Vinson writes. “We look to verbal and physical queues for validity of what someone is saying. Our business processes have much more than just the inputs and outputs.”

Jumping forward but on the same thread:

… in the essay on reengineering … the authors describe how all the social life around business process is downplayed and often treated as waste. Businesses were re-engineered to remove much of the social lubricant that helped business flow. The essay on knowledge management was hopeful that KM would be a shift away from the intense focus on information and account for the human aspects of knowledge: that knowledge requires a knower. They have a great phrasing: information can easily be written down and transferred. But it is much harder to detach (and transfer) knowledge from the know-er and the context in which that knowledge resides.

The book is still important even after 10 years. It doesn’t even mention business intelligence, yet it addresses some of its fundamental problems.

Take a look at The Social Life of Information on Google Books. I also recommend Knowledge Jolt with Jack. Always worthwhile.

Self-tracking: “If man were meant to fly” and other objections

Self tracking for performance has a place on the map now thanks to the May 2 New York Times Magazine article by Gary Wolf. But along with praise and interest, “The Data-Driven Life” also drew harsh, skeptical reactions.

Many of the objections were of the “if man were meant to fly, he’d have wings” variety. But many others were valid.

The practice will run over a few bumps before it joins mainstream performance management and business intelligence. Unlike the impersonal data we know and love, keeping data about oneself can be uncomfortable, difficult, and downright weird.

One of the articulate skeptics called it “robot envy.” In his weblog, Marginal Utility, Rob Horning summed up his objections in the final paragraph.

Numbers can provide only one sort of “truth” about ourselves, and to pursue it we must surrender or compromise other kinds of truth—for example, the intuitive faith we have in our qualitative assessments of our dasein. […] In other words, we give up our soul for a spreadsheet.

I’d like to meet the spreadsheet that steals souls. Until then, I’ll cling to my belief that no spreadsheet, not even Excel, has any more power to do that than a blood pressure cuff or a bathroom scale.

A more credible response came on the New York Times site from “Matt” in California.

Self-tracking will undoubtedly be used to oppress. It will wend its way into mainstream culture, eventually becoming something that employers expect of you as a matter of course. The temporal “productivity gaps” which we use to daydream, think about politics or other non-work related ideas, or simply consolidate memories, will be targeted and eliminated. Also, it is almost inconceivable that self-tracking data will avoid eventually going public.

Wolf gave his own response to some of the criticism (apparently a few minutes before Matt gave his).

I think many of the critical reactions make sense. What are we doing to ourselves? But I suspect that even the people who say something like “turn off the computer and go outside” are more deeply involved in the culture of self-tracking than they realize, and would benefit from going beyond initial revulsion. We _are_ in the process of changing. Our new selves will have new capacities as well as new vulnerabilities. Literacy itself was once a threat to our humanity: it interfered with memory, and substituted external representation for interior experience. It replaced living dialog with marks on a page. But we found a new sort of humanity in this world of letters.

The easy answer is that self tracking has to be done in moderation. Assuming it catches on, we’ll see public-service posters on buses and trains warning against overtracking and out-of-control “self love.” But every good thing is overdone and always will be. — and the solution has never been to ban it, deny it, or belittle it. It’s here, it’s coming, and we might as well use it.

See the article here, the 59 reader-recommended responses here, and all 138 online responses here. See the 7 letters here.