What is analytics?

A reader wrote to us today:

I seem to have spent the last few days (not including the week-end I must add) trying to get to grips with ’Analytics’. If [my boss] comes in wanting a 5 word anaswer to his question "what exactly is an analytic?" I think I’d still be at a loss as to how to define it.

It’s a great question. Analytics (along with its sister/twin term Business Intelligence) gets thrown around without much clarity as to its meaning. You might think with the word in our name, that we’d have long ago nailed down a definition. Not so. (Although we do have a good understanding of what "Juice" means?)

Below is my take on a "map" of the analytics world.

Map of analytics

I used a couple of dimensions to help frame all the parts and pieces:

  • Purpose. A concept of "exploration vs. control" highlights the difference between analysis and reporting. Analysis is about digging deep into data to discover relationships, find causation, and describe phenomena. Reporting, in contrast, is used to track performance and identify variation from goals.
  • Timing. Most analytics is backward looking -- in an attempt to understand what has happened, and therefore be equipped to make better decisions in the future. Alternatively, analytics can focus explicitly on predicting future performance or, in the a few cases, provide information to support decisions in real-time.

I’d really appreciate any comments on this map -- whether I’ve missed/misgrouped/misrepresented concepts or alternative dimensions to describe the space. The more clarity we can provide in describing "what is analytics" the more palatable the concept will be.