5 things you should know about data

It is easy to get caught up in the current wave of excitement about data and to believe that a fact-driven model of the world is the only destination on the analytics journey. While data can be a powerful asset if used in the right way, we should keep our expectations in proportion to the opportunity it represents. After all there are many things that data is not.

Data is not a force unto itself. Data does not change the world by itself. Databases do not knock on doors, make phone calls, develop new products or implement organisational change. The value that data can potentially deliver is realised by human beings who use data to do useful things.

Data is not a perfect reflection of the world. Datasets are representations of the world gathered, generated, selected, corrected, collated and filtered for particular and diverse purposes. They are often incomplete, imperfect, inaccurate and sometimes out of date. Rather than be taken at face value, datasets often serve as a starting point for understanding a subject.

Data does not speak for itself. Data often requires further research and analysis in order to make sense of it. Datasets need to be interpreted critically and the implications of different figures understood. We should not imagine that anyone can easily understand any dataset or that they will easily reveal their secrets.

Data is not power. While data will tell us that something is wrong or that there is a better way of doing things, this is not the same as being in a position to fix things or to affect change. The findings of analysis must be shared with decision makers to achieve the end result.

Interpreting data is not easy. There is a tendency to think that the widespread availability of data and data tools represent a democratisation of the analysis and interpretation of data. While technology has made it easier than ever before to do things with data (gather it, manage it, visualise it, publish it), this does not mean that it is easier to know what a given dataset means. Interpreting data effectively is the remit of a good analyst.

Summary of an article by Jonathan Gray from the Open Knowledge Foundation.

Which data ‘description’ fits you best?

In our experience businesses tend to identify with one of the following six ‘data’ descriptions. Which one they relate to depends on where they are in their work with data. It also decides what sort of help they might need to move them forward. The following is a brief summary of the descriptions and the sorts of progress solutions that are relevant to each.

OUT OF THE BLOCKS – Businesses here realise the value of working well with data but are at an early stage in their journey. They are typically focussed on internal data, using it for performance reporting, budgeting and forecasting. Progress can be hampered by data quality issues and lack of expertise with basic tools.

SLICE & DICE – Data is well organised in spreadsheets or databases and pivoting numbers is ‘par for the course’. While data is more structured, businesses at this level may lose a lot of time on repetitive tasks and may be concerned with the lack of robustness of the many spreadsheets/many users model. Some automation, tools development or process improvement can help them be more effective and efficient with data.

MEASURE UP – These businesses have good data sources and tools to access them, but are not sure what they are looking for. There is an emphasis on return on investment both in relation to the data itself and the marketing activities it reports on. Social media measurement may be adding another level of complexity. Clarity on goals and the precise way progress will be measured is key.

BIG DATA, LITTLE INSIGHT! – For businesses that fall under this description, the sheer volume of data is a problem. Often interpreted as data overload, it is rather an issue of filter failure. Good analysts act as filters for their organisation. When there is a deluge of data, analysts are not succeeding. The issue may be lack of analytical talent in the business or over reliance on a single ‘keeper’ of insights. Solutions range from extending access to data to outsourcing some or all of the analysis workload.

WHAT’S THE STORY? – This description applies to businesses in which there may be plenty of good analysis work taking place, but the conclusions are not being shared with the wider business. It is not unusual for decision makers to be a lacking a summary right when it is needed. The value of the analysis is lost because of a lack of collaboration. Solutions typically involve bringing the story together eg blending data from multiple sources, sharing the output in a custom dashboard.

FINDING THE EDGE – These businesses have a depth of analytical talent that supports decision making with insight generation. Robust tools and processes are in place that ensure accuracy and efficiency. They seek competitive advantage through their ability to work with data, and continuously evolve how they do this. They tend to be pioneers in the adoption of new technology and ways of working.

If you would like any help in progressing your work with data, please contact Delphi Analytics.

Confusion in the Age of Data

The key is human intelligence

“Contrary to popular opinion, we do not yet live in the Information Age. At best, we live in the Data Age – a time when bits of data constantly zoom past our eyes and buzz past our ears, yet few of them inform us meaningfully and usefully. We’re spending millions to put all of that “Big Data” into “The Cloud” without first learning how to separate the signals from the noise. A storm cloud of our own making is already raining confusion down upon us.”
These were the words of Stephen Few in his blog ‘Visual Business Intelligence’, following his keynote address at the recent Teradata Universe conference in Dublin. I think ‘the Data Age’ is a great description of where we currently are. There seems to be a growing belief in the somehow magical properties of big data, and a corresponding exaltation of those leading the way with big data and predictive analytics. Data is the new oil. Data analysts are now data scientists. And if we have all the facts and we apply comprehensive analytics, we will discover the past, understand the present and predict the future!
The point here is not that analytics and big data are useless. In fact the only problem with big data is the hype that surrounds it. This hype detracts from the real key to getting value from data, which is human intelligence. Information only becomes valuable when it is understood, not just when it is made available. Systems can spot subtle patterns in large data sets but, the question of what is a significant pattern and what it might mean, remains the preserve of human insight.
‘Business Intelligence’ also tends to ignore two other important aspects of decision making – intent and intuition. All decision making includes the intent of the decision maker. That intention drives everything from what data is gathered, through how it is evaluated, all the way to the final choice of action. Equally when faced with a significant decision, the intuition of an experienced manager becomes an important and influential factor.
The chatter about Petabytes, Zettabytes and Yottabytes, and the systems to manage them is unlikely to diminish anytime soon. When we can shift the analytics focus from the technology to the contribution of the human mind, we will truly start to move closer to ‘The Age of Information’.

To visualise or not, that is the question

Is 2012 the year that interactive data visualisation becomes a requirement? Tableau software thinks so. “Graphically interesting data visualised on websites and in blogs will make business users expect that capability inside their organisations. And with the trend of bigger data, interactive data visualisation will become a critical tool in sifting through all that data. Reports filled with endless rows and columns of numbers or static, boring charts that take hours to sift through and weeks to change won’t cut it anymore.”

Using pictures is almost always the end destination of analytical work. You turn it into a picture so you can understand it better. However using visuals throughout the process (visual analytics) allows for an interactive conversation with the data, lifting the veil on insight. We get a better and faster understanding of what the data can tell us. Visual analytics capitalises on the brain’s ability to read a picture much faster than a table of numbers.

Contact Delphi Analytics to understand how data visualisation can be applied to your business.

Big data but little insight!

It is hard to find an article about technology trends that  does not contain the new buzzword, ‘big data’. If you delve further you will discover there are 3Vs of big data, – volume (gigabytes, petabytes, zetabytes etc.), variety (numbers, audio, video, text, streams , weblogs, social media etc.), and velocity (the speed with which it is collected). The overarching trend is that data is growing, growing, growing. We are drowning in data but starving for information!

According to Deloitte, in 2012 organisations will find ways to turn the explosion in size, volume and complexity of data into insight and value. We believe that the emphasis on ‘big data’ tends to exaggerate the importance of systems, and speak only to those for whom data warehouses and business intelligence suites are an option. In reality, the ability to access insight and value has more to do with analysis skills than it does access to technology. There are solutions for all scales of business looking to get more valuable information from data in 2012. You just need to talk to the right people!

Contact Delphi Analytics for more information on how to access insight through your data.

Self-reliance is the new self-service

According to Tableau software, self-reliance is one of the key BI trends of 2012. “The idea of self-service BI where IT opens up a small menu of capabilities for employees is over. Giving employees an environment where they can get the data to answer questions on their schedules will become the norm.”

Most employees have access to more advanced information technology outside of work. They have better equipment, better Internet access and use more advanced applications at home than at work. This is changing their information behaviour and driving the consumerisation of entreprise software. Business users expect to access the data they want, when they want it. They are beginning to expect that they can modify and create reports as needed, without the intervention of IT. In the new order, it is the empowered end user who will decide what applications and systems they use, demanding self-reliance as the norm.

Contact Delphi Analytics for more information on self-reliance with data.

Analytics – skill shortage predicted

The amount of data in our world has been exploding, and analysing large data sets will become a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation, and consumer surplus, according to research by MGI and McKinsey’s Business Technology Office. “Leaders in every sector will have to face the challenge of data, not just a few data-oriented managers. The increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, the rise of multimedia, social media, and the Internet will fuel exponential growth in data for the foreseeable future.

Most jobs will require analytical skills but there will be a talent shortage. The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the US alone will face “a shortage of up to 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions“. At some point in the future ‘Analytics’ will probably not be considered a separate discipline, but simply integrated into other roles. Until the employee talent pool reaches this level, it is likely that companies will rely on outsourced skills to bridge the gap.

Contact Delphi Analytics to discuss how the skills of good analysts can help your business.

Co-create to produce more value in information

In his book, ‘The New Normal’, Peter Hinssen identifies sharing/collaboration as one of the ‘offensive drivers’ of information strategy. “The company wants to allow an environment where it is not only easy to share, but also easy to work together. It wants people to be able to co-create to produce more value in information. It wants to break down the silos of information and enable more transparency of information.

Intelligence is about being able to re-use information. Companies will need to foster environments where information can be ‘built’ upon.”

This dynamic will drive new demands from the data support community. Solution providers will facilitate the user to bookmark and share analysis as it progresses. Customised software specific to individual data sets will be replaced by flexible multi–source solutions. Users will demand environments that allow them get the data they want, when they want it. Agencies that do not engage in a collaborative approach will simply become irrelevant.

Contact Delphi Analytics to understand how collaboration on data can drive your information strategy.

Now You See It! – How Data Visualisation Works

The human brain can process a picture much faster than a table of numbers. To understand why, we must recognise the close relationship between vision and cognition. Seeing and thinking work closely to allow us make sense of our world. It is no coincidence that many words we use to describe understanding are metaphors for sight e.g. ‘insight’, ‘illumination’ and of course, ‘I see’.

Vision is by far our most powerful and cognitively efficient sense. When we represent information in visual form, our ability to think about it is dramatically enhanced. Visualisation makes available in front of our eyes more information than we could possibly hold at once in our mind. In simple terms, information visualisation makes us think.

Read more about analysis and reporting through Data Visualisation.

Contact Delphi Analytics to discuss your analysis and reporting needs.

Read More: Stephen Few, Now You See It – Simple Visualisation Techniques for Quantitative Analysis (Oakland, 2009)


Creating the Information Advantage

Data is power. The quantity and rapid growth of business data represents a real opportunity. More information about your customers, your market, and your suppliers is one of the few proprietary assets available to you.

From Wikileaks to Facebook, the new influencers are those who understand the power of data in all its forms. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the web. It is difficult to think of a successful web company whose asset is anything other than data; YouTube, Facebook or Google. However, creating business value from data is not just the realm of the web media giants. All businesses generate increasing quantities of data on a daily basis. The quantity and rapid growth of our business data represents a real opportunity.

Think of it this way. Many of the previous bases for competition are no longer available. Unique geographical advantage doesn’t matter in global competition, and protective regulation is largely gone. Proprietary technologies are rapidly copied, and break-through innovation in products or services seems increasingly difficult to achieve. What’s left as a basis for competition is to execute your business with maximum efficiency and effectiveness, and to make the smartest business decisions possible. Creating an Information Advantage is one of the few defensible advantages over time.

If you are concerned that you could be getting more value from your business data, contact Delphi Analytics. We will help you develop your Information Advantage.

Read More: Thomas H. Davenport, Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning (Boston, 2007)