I was pleased to be part of a panel discussion Tuesday called “Getting There from Here: Moving Data Science into the Boardroom,” moderated by Alistair Croll with colleagues Chris Selland of HP Vertica and Scott Chastain of SAS Institute. This panel was part of O’Reilly’s Strata Conference Data-Driven Business Day.
It’s amazing to see how the Strata Conference has changed over the last couple of years. With big data becoming truly operational across many different industries, companies are now looking at how to manage, blend and analyze data to make profitable business decisions and fly past competitors.
One interesting topic we debated was whether being able to process, analyze and predict outcomes with all this data might drive conformity and ‘dull’ innovation. Will we become so reliant on predictive algorithms and models that we lose confidence in our intuition and not apply enough business judgment into our decision-making?
In preparing, reflecting on these and other burning questions before the panel, I was inspired by the athletes competing in the Sochi Winter Olympics. Sage Kotsenburg, who won the Gold medal in ‘Slopestyle’ snowboarding, managed to blend creativity and style with calculated risk-taking. He had the same data as everyone else in the competition: the course terrain and conditions, the strengths and weaknesses of his competitors, historical trends on how the judges rate different types of athletic feats and other information. Armed with this data and his ability to (literally!) analyze it ‘on the fly,’ he then layered on his intuition to bust some totally unexpected moves, such as the ‘Holy Crail’, that blew the judges away! This demonstrates that being analytical doesn’t come at the expense of using intuition – the two actually strengthen each other. This New York Times pictorial is a great explanation of Sage’s blend of creativity, style and calculated risk-taking.
Let’s explore further how this relates to business decision-making, data science and big data analytics. Consider how the best business and operational managers make decisions:
- They assess the competitive landscape – which are the other key players? What are their strengths and weaknesses (innovation, execution, service)? How have they historically gained customers and grown their businesses? What might they do in the future based on their historical moves?
- They assess what customers will want to reward/buy (the criteria the ‘judges’ will use to assess performance). Some of that seems obvious based on what criteria they specified, but often what a customer truly wants is more subtle and personal. Some want to be inspired, while others want to remove risk. Some would like to be a hero to their end users, while others value having a ‘cool-factor’ in their product.
- They take stock in their company’s strengths and weaknesses to determine how to best meet customers’ needs. Every company has its own ‘DNA’ or approach, just like every Olympic athlete. Are you great at execution (so go for technical perfection)? Flexible and creative (so showcase the art of the possible)?
- They apply business judgment to determine how to take advantage of the opportunities they see – often needing to make a change ‘on the fly’ based on new data…just like Sage decided to create a new move on the fly to change the rules of the game during that particular meet.
- Lastly, they have to execute well enough on the strategy we have picked – choosing the right time, right place and right moves. Sage’s execution wasn’t perfect, but combined with his creativity, energy and style, his overall performance was solid gold.
What’s the implication for those of us whose competitive sports take place in the world of business? We need to make sure we put consumable, near real-time information into the hands of the operational managers who can apply business judgment, decide on courses of actions, and ultimately own the outcome of decisions. We may not always feel the exhilaration of the wind in our face, jumping at neck-breaking speeds down steep cliffs, but we can combine analytics with our best business judgment to go for the gold!