BI Excellence or Analytic Horror – You Choose!

November 21, 2011
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Sometimes, business intelligence stories can be complex and technical.  Sometimes, even the success stories of a million shaved off expenses here or a 3% improvement in profit margin there can be a bit repetitive.  However, it is the success stories that can prove the business value and quality that characterize the best BI projects.  As one of the judges of the annual South African BI Excellence and Innovation Awards (closing date for entries is 30 November), I’d l

Sometimes, business intelligence stories can be complex and technical.  Sometimes, even the success stories of a million shaved off expenses here or a 3% improvement in profit margin there can be a bit repetitive.  However, it is the success stories that can prove the business value and quality that characterize the best BI projects.  As one of the judges of the annual South African BI Excellence and Innovation Awards (closing date for entries is 30 November), I’d like to share with you a novel approach to making your entry stand out.  For those of you not eligible to enter, the approach also works when trying to raise funding from the business for a new BI project.  However, you may need to be very brave, even foolhardy; sometimes, you need to tell the as-is horror story to prove just how much better the to-be situation will be.

This story that I’m about to summarize comes courtesy of Teradata’s Bill Franks, who posted it about 10 days ago on the Smart Data Collective blog, where it’s attracting lots of attention.  Entitled “The Dire Consequences of Analytics Gone Wrong: Ruining Kids’ Futures”, Bill recounts the story of a local school who invested for the first time in an analytics package designed (allegedly) to detect cheating in English essays.  The package was run for the first time against a set of essays submitted at the start of term by a class of highly motivated and high performing students.  The package promptly reported that each and every student was a cheater, with pervasive copying and plagiarism throughout the group.  The school failed all of the students on the assignment and was about to note the offense on the students’ records, an action that would have had severe consequences for their future educational chances, until the parents stepped in…

I leave you to check the rest of the story on Bill’s post.  But the bottom line was that the school and the teachers trusted the results of the package more than their own prior experience of the students.  A result of stunning implausibility from the software was accepted without question, without any resort to reason or common sense.  Apparently, the school backed down on noting the offense on the students’ records; but it stood by the decision to fail every student in the class on the essay.

As BI practitioners, I trust you get the message.  Analytics in the hands of naive users can be more dangerous than a Kalashnikov.  Self-service BI may speed up delivery, but how reliable are the conclusions?  There’s a good reason why assault rifles are not available on open supermarket shelves (in most countries!).  I’m not against self-service BI, but I do have a problem with willful and uneducated business users.  BI must complement common sense, not to substitute for it.  It’s up to IT to ensure the users are informed of the strengths and weaknesses of new tooling.

To return to your entries for the BI Awards, to be presented at the BI Summit in Johannesburg on 28 February next, I hope you don’t have a horror story of such magnitude, and if you did, I imagine your CEO would be reluctant to have it told in public.  But do remember that the difference between the before and after pictures is a strong indication to the judges of the value of the project to the business.  BI Excellence, beyond technical architecture, also includes data governance and user education.  BI Innovation is about changing the way users make business decisions.  Good decisions based on reliable information.