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Data: it’s just notation, not reality

The always fascinating Donald Farmer, former Qlik exec and now Treehive Strategy principal, has news for users of data business: “Data isn’t the real world.” It’s just a reflection that’s framed by stories we tell ourselves.

Stories come first, contrary to the data industry’s dubious vision. Data, the marketing likes to imply, is a divine compass from a virginal birth. Just get some and you’ll know the way.

There was no virginal birth for data but, as Donald Farmer illustrates, there is jazz. In his presentation to two dozen industry experts at this year’s annual Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit, you can try this: Force a John Coltrane song into musical notation, then give it to 10 jazz musicians. They’ll produce 10 different songs — and not one will be Coltrane’s song.

“People say we’re recording [business events],” said Donald, “but we’re not. We’re notating it. It’s a representation. Sampling is more like it.” He’s not the first one to say such things, but it takes someone of Donald’s authority to win much notice.

Data needs interpretation, and that’s always based on assumptions. “When we say we ‘lost an opportunity,'” he said, “that’s just a story we tell ourselves.” Sales people often come back from meetings gloomy about lost sales. “They say, ‘I’m going to miss my quarterly target, or my girlfriend will leave me because I couldn’t give her the vacation I promised.’ We think that’s the real world.”

The “lost” sale may be not be lost for long, such as when the prospect comes back in six months after the competitor failed to deliver. The salesperson may also cultivate a trusted-advisor role and win in the long run. And the girlfriend leaving just because she couldn’t go to Cancun, well, maybe that’s a good thing.

Even in IoT (Internet of Things), what’s assumed to be pure data, hot off the sensor, was configured based on beliefs. What is “just a binary signal” is limited, for example, to a given spectrum.

What’s a business person to do? Farmer suggests that data users “walk back down the ladder” and to inspect any unconsciously adopted limits. There, on the lower rungs of the mind, you might find unfounded assumptions, stories, and alternate premises.

Donald’s observations stirred up concerns, of course. Suzanne Hoffman, veteran BI software executive now with ZenOptics, asked about the effect of too many individual interpretations. “That’s chaos,” she said. “You can’t have that.” Donald replied that that’s just competitive advantage: “Businesses do things in different ways,” he said. Suzanne: “Isn’t the goal of methodology to accept thinking ‘outside the box’?” Donald: “Methodology can get in the way of doing that.”

Merv Adrian, vice president of research at Gartner, said, “It’s the difference between implicit and explicit…We live every day in the implicit set of choices and the ideology that represents. … If we can deconstruct how we got here, we might make different choices.”

Ideology is embedded even in the design of analysis tools. Tableau makes certain things easy for those assumed to be using it, skilled analysts (at least according to Qlik dogma). They are different from the users Qlik assumes it serves, everyday business people. Qlik’s users, less skilled in analytics, won’t have to face statistically-laden trend lines, Donald explains — though he hasn’t yet said what Qlik offers instead.

Donald’s forthcoming book will go into far more depth on the subject in the first half. The second half will address handling ambiguity. He expects it to be out in the second quarter of 2018.

Data lake: compositional or architectural?

Is the data lake following the typical path for new technology? Merv Adrian, research VP, data management and integration and Gartner was talking about data lakes and big data projects at the just-concluded Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit. Josh Good, senior director of product marketing at Qlik asked the question.

Merv’s answer:

That’s a terrific question. We’re talking about a phenomenon of some recency which is the notion of the new platform sell. [It’s] not a new application, not a new function, but a new platform designed to replace existing ones or supplement them (usually the first until they figure out that’s not practical). And that, I think, is the larger market failure … or the blunting of the thrust that there’s this new opportunity to build new platforms.

I’m relatively convinced that people coming into the market now are not thinking about the replacement of the end to end. They are looking for parts. If they’ve gotten at all sophisticated or knowledgable about how to achieve the outcome that they presumably have defined, then they have put together in their head at least some sort of chart they can draw on the wall, which is a bunch of boxes that connect to one another with flows, and they’re identifying the APIs among them.

That’s becoming an issue especially as we move to the cloud and people start talking about services-based architectures and are thinking about the way they want to get to where they want to go is a composition exercise, not an architecture one.

BI Summit / Goin’ up north where the wind blows tall

I’ve never figured out why one hard-thumping song by Tom Waits brings to my mind the annual Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit. Yet it does, even now as I prepare for the six-hour drive up to Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s my sixth consecutive time, and the Summit’s sixteenth.

I start out the drive with “Goin’ Out West” on my mind. “I’m goin’ out west where the wind blows tall / ‘Cause Tony Franciosa used to date my ma.” By the time I arrive on the Weasku Inn’s big lawn, dig out a beer from the ice chest, and say hello to the nearest person, the song’s gone. It’s show time.

The pessimism of “Goin’ Out West” seems like a raspberry at the event’s breezy conversation and such traditions as grilled salmon dinner on the deck, tequila shots later, and friendly conversation until you can’t stay up any longer. Very late, you can glance up at one window and imagine Clark Gable mourning Carole Lombard. He spent two weeks doing that up there.

But forget the raspberry. It’s just fun. Though the leading men and women there do obsess about technology and bluff about everything else, this is a summit, you know. Wind happens at high altitude, and everyone’s got altitude here.

Astute readers will observe that “Goin’ Out West” makes fun of those who, it would seem, should stay home. “I’m no extra, baby, I’m a leading man,” says Waits’ character. He drives his “Olds 88” with “a hole in the roof the shape of a heart.” He’s “goin’ out west where they’ll appreciate me.” He’s headed for Hollywood.

No one wears a name badge here. Anyone can hang out on the deck and be a leading man or leading woman. Everyone knows each other or is about to. You can change your name to Hannibal or maybe just Rex.

Twitter hashtag is #BISUM.

BI Summit / Putting one more V on big data: virtue

Big data needs a bigger heart than it’s shown so far — essentially the point that Jill Dyché will make this Friday at the sixteenth annual Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit in Grants Pass, OR.

Organizations have a responsibility to improve lives, as she puts it, “one citizen, patient, taxpayer, sports fan, and dog at a time.” To report on her presentation, which precedes a 90 minute discussion among 20 industry experts and observers, will be three dutiful reporters: longtime industry observer Steve Swoyer, TechTarget executive editor Craig Stedman, and me.

Jill’s session will be one of four. The first two occur on Friday, one on Saturday, and the last one on Sunday. The three others are by Donald Farmer, recently of Qlik and now of his own Treehive Strategy, on the analytic experience; Mike Ferguson of his own, UK-based Intelligent Business Strategies on the new-and-cool edge analytics; and Merv Adrian of Gartner on data lake architectures.

Jill’s topic continues on her theme of last year. She told how a dog shelter using pre-digital processes sent a dog to be euthanized just as would-be adoptees asked to take the dog. That was sad, but the eventual adoption of digital processes, which she drove, certainly prevented future tragedies.

Getting for-profit organizations to use data for more than profit might be harder. Do companies really care about philanthropy? Or does most business leadership believe that one-offs are good enough? Is it good enough to ally with the Sierra Club?

We’ll see what she and others have to say.

Twitter hashtag is #BISUM.

‘How’s it compare with Tableau?’

No matter what BI product Suzanne Hoffman mentions during needs-assessment meetings with business users at SMBs, she says, the question is the same nine times out of ten: “How’s it compare with Tableau?”

“No one ever asks how it compares with Power BI,” says Hoffman, an industry consultant with vast experience. She does mention Power BI as a “low cost alternative.” But it’s thrown out more often than not.

They want down and dirty and a low learning curve, she finds. The winners of that contest are things like Tableau and Domo. Ask for a line of code, such as in Qlik or Power BI, and it gets wiped off the whiteboard.

The market has taken note. Tableau lookalikes pop up, change, and disappear so fast it’s hard to keep track . “It’s like trying to compare drops of water on pavement,” she said. “They dry up before you get a chance to look at them.”