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.