Time for an Analytics Show and Tell

Over the past three-plus years that I have been writing about data analytics in the enterprise, no challenge for analytics professionals has come up more often than that of getting business unit managers and executives to buy into data concepts.

I think the only complaint that matches the business-analytics disconnect might be the beef about data quality. However, it seems that analytics professionals have a better grasp on the quality issue, perhaps because it's often in their own realm and they can improve quality by brute force and some extra hours.

Changing the mindsets of experienced people on a different section of the org chart is a very different beast. It helps to have a data advocate in the business unit or backing from the CEO. However, establishing trust in data when a potential partner is a thousand miles away and busy with their own problems remains a challenge. How do you get someone with decades of experience to let data into their decision process, even if it only supplements that experience?

Credit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel
Credit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel

One possibility is to take a cue from those who strive to make innovation a core business principle. Perhaps it's no coincidence that analytics and innovation seem to be tightly linked anyway.

An article in Harvard Business Review highlights how some companies -- Zipcar in particular -- get employees to innovate. They don't simply ask them or tell them to innovate. They show them how. The approaches include bringing employees together to do things like smash a computer and naming innovative new products after the employees who suggested them.

The article made me wonder what an analytics team could do to demonstrate the power of analytics to the unsuspecting or recalcitrant.

The HR department might get upset if employees were told to beat up the "no data now, no data ever" line manager. However, we do hear about the occasional case where a spiffy data visualization has persuaded a stubborn manager that analytics can help solve problems. How do you make that technique scale?

Are there ways to use visualization techniques to make front line workers and even C-level executives more data aware? As it is, the typical organization probably doesn't discuss data with the masses of employees beyond the annual memo about protecting data.

I would love to see analytics teams go the extra mile to get the average employee to be excited about ways to use data in their job. At this point in time all of those people know that businesses and government are collecting data about them. Most of them see only the dark side of that data collection -- big data spying.

Going the extra mile could mean a data road show where analytics pros show employees what types of data are available to their departments. In real life, even if department heads know what data is on hand, word of that trickles down to the ranks only on a piecemeal basis, and often without perspective. Boss: "We have some new customer data available. Let us know if you have any questions." That type of leadership won't move any mountains.

Suppose a representative from the analytics team sat down with two dozen employees, a different group each week, and explained how other companies might be using their data. Then, they could explain how their own company uses -- and doesn't abuse -- its own customer data. Or, they could highlight what types of operational or industry data is available.

While you have their undivided attention you have an opportunity to solicit their own suggestions for new data sources and new ways that the company could use data. I suspect that some good ideas would come out of that discussion.

Think back to your school days. What was more interesting, the teacher droning on about sentence structure or show-and-tell day when some kid brought in their pet frog? Maybe it's time to bring show and tell into the world of analytics.

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: Success Stories
  • 3/8/2017 11:03:22 AM

"However, establishing trust in data when a potential partner is a thousand miles away and busy with their own problems remains a challenge. How do you get someone with decades of experience to let data into their decision process, even if it only supplements that experience?" 

Establishing trust in data is a challenge that all enterprises face. One of the issues is that it is often difficult to convince a decision-maker with a lot of experience to change their tactics and begin using and trusting data. However, it is important for those people to understand that gut instinct and intuition can still be a factor. The data can be used to prove or disprove the intuition.

Re: Success Stories
  • 2/13/2017 2:10:29 PM

@kq4ym. Yes, there's always a chance that an athlete could throw a game on behalf of gamblers. There already is a history of that dating back to the Chicago Black Sox scandal, various college basketball point shaving schemes, and even a corrupt basketball referee. In football, the easiest way to fix a game would be to get a defensive back to fall down on a passing play, giving the offense a clear path to a touchdown. In baseball a pitcher could "groove" a pitch to a power hitter.

Fortunately, most pro leagues/teams (and even some college programs) have dramatically stepped up their security measures just in the past few years (after several teams suffered the embarassment of having players involved not in fixing games but in crimes as serious as murders). The idea is to identify players whose behavior off the field would be indicative of gang activity, excessive gambling, and drugs. I wonder if those security teams are using analytics to identify problem players as early as pre-draft. 

Re: Success Stories
  • 2/12/2017 11:40:43 AM

There has been some researech on sports games showing that when the two opponents are very equally matched in skill, the outcomee is very much random. In professional sports of course the teams are often well matched. And for the skeptical out there, I would venture that it may also be with huge financial rewards and game betting that players could "throw" a game by illegal game actions resulting in penalties against their team?

Re: Showing and telling analytics
  • 2/10/2017 2:12:24 PM

@RobW. You're absolutely right about "sitting chairside". It makes perfect sense and can only enhance the application and the business-IT/analytics relationship. That's why it drives me crazy to think that organizations don't enable/encourage it, and that individuals (on both the business and tech side) so often resist it. Let's understand this: They don't have time to do it right and talk it through, but they do have time to deal with flawed systems, retrofitted fixes, and six months of complaining about the other side. Hmm!

Re: Success Stories
  • 2/10/2017 9:44:46 AM

Weirdest Super Bowl game I ever saw.

Of course, it's not the first time the Patriots came from behind in the 2nd half -- even in a Super Bowl.  But definitely a history maker.

Re: Showing and telling analytics
  • 2/8/2017 12:14:12 PM

My experience confirms the Show and Tell approach does deliver mutual value: the customer learns what's possible turning data into insights, and you learn about your customer's data, analytic needs, and capacity to consume and use information.  We called it "Sitting Chairside" with key business users to learn how they do their job and how information can help them. This should be a regular part of understanding how information is used and valued in various roles in your company.

As mentioned vendor software trials are good yet often the vendor does not put in the time to get the tool working with your data - this is left up to the developer or end-user.  Often this approach does not yield positive results unless the vendor invests their time along with the software.

Re: Showing and telling analytics
  • 2/6/2017 5:46:22 PM


Ariella writes

... I get the sense that the dazzling effects are intended to make the audience forget to question. I realized that after speaking with some people at Google about the new visualization tool the company had launched. 


Ariella refers to a blog post she wrote on this issue. Her post – with the title Data visualization: you have to C it to believe it – is an excellent read. I especially liked her observation about the Fake News epidemic:

Notice just about every fake news piece is accompanied by some sort of visualization, whether it is a graph or photo or video. They all capitalize on the "seeing is believing" concept, and one has to be extra vigilant about the lure of visual evidence.


But what I liked most of all is it offers some actual evidence and data to bolster the "bedazzling" contention I had made about the abuse of data visualization.


Re: Success Stories
  • 2/6/2017 5:43:42 PM

@Michelle. That's right, James White in OT. I saw every second of it, and then about 90 minutes of post-game plus another hour of web surfing and social media this morning. Most incredible game I ever saw. The analytics were wrong, oh so wrong.

Re: Vendor Sponsored Demonstration Projects
  • 2/6/2017 2:12:15 PM

@Jim, Glad to assist! Yeah, that is a tried and true winb-win scenario for safely introducing new products.  The catch is that most product materials will not mention the option for a 'six week pilot program'.  Vendors may mention it after they have gone down the checklist to get a sale and there is no other way to get a foot in the door.  In short, the customer should be proactive and ask right up front 'Hey we are curious about your product; can we set up a six week pilot program please?' As the customer, you should take the initiative in getting the analytics that you need.  If the vendor typically does not provide pilots, your request may open the door for a trial engagement.

So yes - for anyone reading this segment of the thread who wants to test drive a package: (1) ask to speak directly with an account rep and not a call center rep because this is a customized requst and might not be on the vendor's web page or glossy brochures (call center resps often work from a script with skip patterns) - if you can get a manager even better they know the quarterly sales targets, (2) express your interest in the product and ask if they would help you explore the possibility of a sale or contract via a six week pilot (that is a reasonable amount of time to use someone's product without being greedy - the pressure will be on you to have an installation schedule and test plan in mind when the clock starts), (3) be sure that you compose a simple Memorandum of Understanding states the scope of engagment and no obligation to license the software after the pilot period - and that the software will be uninstalled after the pilot has been completed. 

Ideally, if you want pilots from multiple vendors, then yopu will have a test database set up so that there is a common point of comparison for all of the products.

Glad to make a deposit into the community idea bucket; hope it helps!

Re: Success Stories
  • 2/6/2017 12:56:02 PM

@James the WSJ didn't get it right this time! Your team won in overtime :)

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