Microsoft says: “BI is Really Hard to Use”

We don’t tend to agree with Microsoft when it comes to data analysis and presentations. In fact, we’ve even been critical of them for misrepresenting data, excessive visual “flair”, missed opportunities to improve Excel, forgetting their power users, subpar presentation tools, and wasteful slide masters.

With all these past differences, I was a little surprised to find that we do share some common ground. Check out the comments (from an article in Internet News) by Peter Klein, CFO for Microsoft’s Business Division in describing the world of business intelligence:

“I’ve talked to a lot of customers about business intelligence and the one thing that they tell me is it’s really hard to use,” said Peter Klein, during at the Credit Suisse conference.

“‘I’m not getting the value out of the investment that I made,’” Klein said customers had complained. “‘I have invested a lot in my back-end systems, and today 10 percent or less of my employees actually touch it, or get access to the data. I’ve got six different BI solutions across multiple different departments, none of which talk to each other. And they’re hard to use, so I’ve got to send people to training for two weeks to learn how to use it.

Finally, we are speaking the same language. Now, I’m curious to see what they are going to do about it.

Analytics Roundup: Visualization goodies

The Problem With Presentations
Don’t let presentation software keep you from getting your story across,

Webfoot’s Mapeteria: Map Colouring
Want to make a choropleth thematic map (i.e. coloured based on your data) for Canadian provinces, U.S. states, or French départements?

The Econ 101 Management Method - Joel on Software
Instead of having smart people figure out how to train their frontline customer service workers to serve customers well and profitably, they make up metrics that sound good and let the low wage, high-turnover customer service people come up with their own.

The rise and fall of IT | Perspectives | CNET
Scrap IT? A well-reasoned argument for scrapping the term "IT."

Gallery of Data Visualization

Summize - Summarized product reviews
A nice visualization for showing rankings.

The Extreme Presentation(tm) Blog: Choosing a good chart

Help Save Your Local GUI Jock

We all know at least one GUI Jock. That one guy who knows how to, say, run a complex query on the content management system, or export data from the annoying sales database front-end or actually get new data into what qualifies as "the system" where you work. He is a master of tools that appear obscure, but are in fact just a pain in the neck. He is not writing firmware for the space shuttle; he is changing the background gradients in your marketing dashboard.

The GUI Jock is a paradoxical figure. Indispensable and yet undervalued, he owes his livelihood to the ferocity of the beast he tames. The sheer number and complexity of pull-down menus, check-boxes, obscure options, software bugs, and poor user interface choices created by an external software vendor. The GUI Jock conquers them all—he is a human compiler who receives requests in the loose and informal language of the outsider and compiles them to the standards demanded by expensive enterprise software.

But how did he find himself in this position? Ironically, he may have fallen into this unfortunate role by being good at a few ad hoc requests which he likely completed under the assumption that he would soon be moving on to more interesting work. But now he is stuck in a trap that he helped build and of which others are afraid. He is there to fall on the grenade that is lousy software, poor documentation, and bad process so the rest of the organization can go about its job without another hassle. The GUI Jock suffers so we do not.

What can be done?

In my experience the GUI Jock is usually not happy with his lot. If you know him you are probably aware that he can be a grouch and he has probably sighed in your presence more than once (if you don’t know him, he might be you). But can we set him free?

A typical response is training. Grab a conference room for a few hours, set up a projector and show the junior staff just how to hold that chair while taming the beast known as the "InsiteDynaMetrix CollaboStream(tm)". The juniors sit and nod, happy to have such a big block of their day accounted for. In my experience, the success rate of this approach is woefully low. It can backfire, basically serving to train attendees to know who exactly the GUI Jock is and that they should funnel all relevant requests directly to his inbox.

To protect itself, the organization demands that the GUI Jock stay in his role. He is the only person who will save himself. He has a few options:

  • Sucker a new employee into the role. New employees are eager to please and crave the recognition of value that comes with being a GUI Jock. They are also too naive to see the quicksand.
  • Increase the friction for people who lean on him. Ask for forms to be filled out, demand detailed requirements, and delay in delivering results. With enough process, these people may decide to serve themselves.
  • Apply to graduate school.

Esurance–Competing on Analytics

Recently I caught up with my college friend John Swigart who now runs the marketing organization at Esurance. When the conversation inevitably drifted to business, I asked about how Esurance was using data to make decisions. I was expected to hear the same old story—big failed data warehouse projects, piles of underutilized reports, frustration about not being able to understand how the business was performing. I was way off.

It seems that John works for the rare company that has managed to live the analytics dream. Esurance competes on analytics—not in the idealistic model highlighted by Tom Davenport, whose "full-bore" analytics competitors are defined by:

"Top management had announced that analytics was key to their strategies; they had multiple initiatives under way involving complex data and statistical analysis, and they managed analytical activity at the enterprise (not departmental) level...

...Employees hired for their expertise with numbers or trained to recognize their importance are armed with the best evidence and the best quantitative tools. As a result, they make the best decisions: big and small, every day, over and over and over."

That’s window-dressing. John didn’t make any grandiose pronouncements of Esurance’s analytical achievement or talk of the best tools and most complicated models. He simply stated that data-based decision-making has been a part of the culture from the very beginning and he considers it essential to running a smart business. A few points that he emphasized:

  • Clear linkages between metrics. There needs to be a well-understood hierarchy that has important financial measures at the top (i.e. revenue) and connects to the underlying drivers.
  • Frequent reviews of reporting. Senior managers get together on a regular basis to look through the core reporting. These meetings are detailed, but somehow useful enough that people stay committed to the process.
  • Learning takes time. John recognized that Esurance cound not be as evolved in their understanding of the business without a commitment to this approach from the very beginning.

After getting off the phone with John, I asked him to respond to a few questions so our readers could get a taste of their approach:

How has Esurance managed to develop a culture that embraces decisions using data?

We don’t make decisions based "I think we should this." We look at data to find out what we know, then decide what to do based on the facts. We identify expected outcomes up front and determine how we are going to measure the change before we implement something. Also, a data-driven culture starts at the top of our organization.

What processes do you have in place to get the right data in front of the right people?

We have centralized data warehouse and reporting structure. Everyone gets their data from the same place and the metrics are universal. This took 3-4 years to get it right, and we built it from scratch. It takes a substantial commitment to pull off.

What is the role of the analyst in your organization? What tools do they use?

We have technical analysts and DBAs in our business intelligence group that deal with the more technical issues. In Marketing, then, we have analysts how are on the individual marketing teams that work closely with the business people. The use some basic tools, nothing terribly fancy.

From an analysis perspective, what do you do when you are testing new marketing opportunities?

All tests are done with as much of a controlled environment as possible. With so many moving parts, this can be difficult, but is important.

How has analytics contributed to the success of Esurance?

Truly one of our competitive advantages. We would not be where we are today without great data and a dedication to using it through all levels of the organization.

What about the (Analysis) Grunts?

Phillip Carter’s article in Slate entitled What about the Grunts argues that the findings of the Iraq Study Group are fundamentally flawed because they fail "to study the war at its most critical level—that of the grunts." It is at this level that he believes the war will be won or lost. The Iraq Study Group:

needed instead to talk with soldiers, Marines, intelligence officers, and diplomats who regularly interact with Iraqis and understand the reality of this country that exists outside the blast walls of America’s hermetically sealed bases.

The Iraq Study Group, the Pentagon, and the U.S. headquarters in Baghdad have all displayed an almost pathological inability to listen to and learn from their own people. Our enemies suffer from no such bureaucratic encumbrances; they learn, they adapt, and they evolve much faster than we do.

While the gravity of the situation is trivial in comparison, there is a similar debate in the world of analytics. The discussion of how and where analytics should exist in a business results in a similar divide between those that believe the answers can come from the top and those that prefer the insight of the front-lines (and of course the fence-sitters who see the value in both / don’t want to mix it up).

Tom Davenport, in particular, seems enamored with the concept of creating a centralized analytics capability to rule them all. He believes that you "competes on analytics" if you "not only employ analytics in almost every function and department but also consider it so strategically important that you manage it at the enterprise level."

Meanwhile, Davenport minion Jim Novo responded to our criticism by stating:

"if a silo wants to keep an analytical “lead" in it’s own little box to do the navel-gazing, silo-focused analysis that impacts it’s own little box, then that’s OK. Just know that this analysis, while meaningful to the little box, cannot be used or trusted anywhere else in the company and so is of very little value in a macro way. But it’s safe; the silo can proceed with the $10 “micro tweaks" and have full accountability while the competition is making macro process changes worth millions using centralized analytics."

Ouch. There is hardly enough room in my little box to both do my navel-gazing and my micro-tweaking.

The alternative school of thought is that the majority of meaningful, actionable analysis takes place (or should take place) on the front-lines of the business. These are the people who understand the nuances of the situation and need to live with the results. Not unlike the grunts in Iraq.

Related links:

  • Fernanda Viegas of IBM’s Visual Communication Lab is a proponent of "democratizing" visualization. Audio version of her presentation at IDEA Conference.
  • Article by Martin Ahrens discussing centralized vs. decentralized analytics and the important role of each.

It’s complicated so shut up

Ze Frank produces a smart, funny daily video blog. A viewer wrote in to say Ze shouldn’t discuss a particular topic because "it’s complicated". I think Ze Frank’s response is great. Folks build walls in a business by saying, "You couldn’t understand what we’re doing, it’s complicated," "You can’t question that policy, it’s complicated". It’s natural to want to fend off difficult questions but it leads to a siloed business with an "us vs. them" mentality and can stifle innovation.

This show may not be safe for work—it contains salty language. Listen with the headphones on the first time.

A Script for Misunderstanding












(lazily looking out window, spots a hay bale

in a trashcan, starts with surprise)

Hale of bay? Why are they throwing

out that hale of bay?



Why’s the "of" in it?


What are you talking about, "of in"?


Why are you calling me "oven"?


That’s a real conversation. Thankfully, my wife and I aren’t verbally dysfunctional all the time. My personal pet peeve are meetings that exhibit a similar sort of verbal confusion. Does this sound familiar?


We need X.


You can’t have Y.


X is really important.


We’ll never be able to get Y done in time.

This is a great way to blow half an hour before Jim and Amy discover that they aren’t even talking about the same thing.

This language barrier is particularly acute when business folks try to talk to IT folks. We’ve run into this problem a number of times. Here’s a good conversation on the topic. No solutions today, just venting... and laughing.

Re-thinking constraints

500 words. That’s all I’m giving myself to make my point. Here it is: constraints can be your friend. Limits on time, money, people, resources can channel your creative energy, drive innovation and focus.

The seed: I’ve been listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship (Venture Voice, Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders), and hearing a recurring thread: company finds itself in a terrible pinch, money is running out, strategic options disappear, employees leave -- suddenly the start-up turns a corner to success. Why would this happen with such frequency?

There’s a "Theory of Constraints", originated from the Operations novel (there aren’t many of those) "The Goal" by Eliyahu Goldratt. The concept goes:

"In any complex system at any point in time, there is most often only one aspect of that system that is limiting its ability to achieve more of its goal. For that system to attain any significant improvement, that constraint must be identified and the whole system must be managed with it in mind."

Which is to say: constraints limit performance. I’m not so sure, especially in service-based businesses. Absence of constraints can be the problem. Here’s why:

  • More begets more...confusion, chaos, complexity. You’ve probably seen the inefficiencies of big teams and the lack of focus of big-company strategies (Microsoft strategy presentation). Lost in the complexity is attention to detail, clarity of mission, an appreciation of the value of resources.
  • More options lead to analysis paralysis. Did you know there are six kinds of Snickers now?! I am often too dazzed by my candy bar options to choose. A constraint-less world offers too many options -- and leads to a fear of sub-optimizing. So we fall back on...
  • Status quo decisions. When a manager’s marketing budget goes up, the tendency is to just increase spend in proven channels -- rather than experimenting with something new. More options pushes us toward our affinity to avoid risk -- at the cost of innovation.

Which isn’t to say I won’t take more money or more help any day. My concern is about managing the downsides of more:

  • More waste
  • Less creativity
  • Less attention to detail and quality
  • Less focus and clarity
  • Less pride in accomplishment

Isn’t it worth seeking out constraints in some situations -- even if imposed artifically? A few ideas that we are going to try:

  • Create artificial deadlines with teeth. Something real and bad has to happen when a project extends beyond a deadline. What if a team had to write a document describing why a deadline was missed?
  • Limit design freedom with less space, fewer colors, fewer tabs and buttons. At Juice, we recently found that we had some fairly radical limitations on the space available to create a web interface. What started as an annoyance helped us take some great steps forward.
  • Cap team size. What if you limited every team to five or fewer people? Just imagine the efficiencies and focus -- and all the people you could legitimately exclude!
  • Try without money. What if you had no marketing budget for a new product? I bet most of the companies that succeed with viral marketing are those that need to. Big companies admire the power of using customers as a salesforce -- but advertising is so much more well understood.
  • Fewer words. How about limiting blog posts to 500 words; PowerPoint lists to five items; and proposals to three pages? As Mark Twain said: "I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one."

There is pain in fitting into constraints. And it isn’t always worth it. But there can be pay-offs in innovation, efficiency and focus. (Darn, 618 words. I’m off to my 118 minutes of "Dancing with the Stars".)

Others’ thoughts on this subject: