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4 posts from January 2016

25 January 2016

More than just a cog in the machine: supporting key decision-making with valued data

by Matthew Linehan Manager

There is a traditional metaphor which represents a business as a machine, with various independent components functioning together effectively to generate an output. On the one hand this metaphor may seem simplistic or perhaps even reductive. The mechanical image fails to highlight the value that people bring to an organisation. On the other hand the metaphor of a machine, properly maintained and employed effectively, can illustrate the value of using technology to empower people.

The metaphor lends itself well to the manufacturing sector, in which many processes are heavily oriented around machinery. The manufacturing process has products at its heart. Raw materials are input, processed and refined, and a product is created for sale. To deliver value, both for the customer and for itself, the business must manage its key drivers: costs and pricing, delivery and quality, to name a few. In vertically integrated organisations with large product portfolios, multiple sales channels and quite often disparate ERP solutions, managing these factors at a strategic level can prove challenging. The capacity of traditional technologies has limited how effectively these processes can be represented.

The challenge for management is maintaining a balanced view of the business. Reporting solely at a high-level risks missing key messages hidden in the detail. Trawling masses of data to identify the detail becomes a burden on time. To make effective decisions, we need to complement the strategic perspective with appropriate pockets of granular detail that cut through the data and identify the business narrative. So how do we achieve this balance?

Whether in sourcing raw materials, manufacturing, or distributing products, businesses collect vast quantities of ERP data through both human behaviours and automated processes. This data, a rich and valuable by-product, can be structured, organised and presented to highlight key messages. There is great scope for interaction here. Modern data crunching and visualisation technologies can make quick work of large, disparate data sources, forming a bridge between the detail and the bigger picture. Our minds can quickly identify even complex patterns when the data is presented in a compelling visual form. Standard static reporting can be transformed into a trusted, interactive narrative.

The business landscape changes rapidly; new opportunities are constantly emerging. And while the products, processes and techniques may evolve quickly, the key drivers that underpin these remain fundamentally similar. For all the value that the machine brings, the human element is still essential for making tactical decisions and providing strategic direction. In the light of this, new technologies and techniques can be seen as key enablers in supporting decision-making, and trusted data represents a valuable element of the framework for effecting business change.

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.

by Matthew Linehan Manager

11 January 2016

Visualising the win

People like me, who work with data on a day-to-day basis, often forget that there are other people out there who aren’t quite as enthusiastic and energetic about numbers, statistics and visualisations as we are. It’s an easy trap to fall in to; my job is focused almost exclusively on taking numbers and making things happen. I’m often found hunched - bad for posture, no doubt - over my laptop, embroiled in an interesting new set of data, trying to figure out what it means, what it’s supposed to tell me and what it’s actually telling me.

One of the classic misconceptions about Data People, is that we have all of these amazing tools that allow us to merely click a button and like magic everything works. And if I’m honest, that’s the goal, but it’s never quite the reality. Data is an odd thing. Everybody has their own interpretation of what’s ‘right’ and what’s ‘wrong’. Data people like to stamp their personality on to their data, they want to make it theirs. So when it comes to trying to look at someone else’s data – which is what we so often do – things get pretty complicated, pretty quickly.

Data Visualisation tools, such as Tableau and QlikView, serve many, many purposes. But one of my favourites is the ability to quickly spot serious problems within a dataset. You can quickly assess the quality of the data you’re working with, by plugging it into one of these fantastic tools and just playing around with it. Whilst the principle functionality of a Data Visualisation tool is to produce dashboards with 4 or 5 insightful charts, plugging in a dataset for the first time will probably see you produce hundreds, just to figure out what’s going on.

The majority of these charts will be discarded pretty quickly, but they serve an important purpose, irrespective of how garish or hideous they may appear. They all play an important role in your understanding of the data. Each chart will tell its own little story, it’s just that the CEO, the Board of Directors or Senior Management don’t need to know about every little story contained within that data, that’s why they hire analysts like you. You’re the one who needs to know the data inside out; they only need to see the high-level, headline-grabbing numbers.

So plug your data into Tableau or QlikView, interrogate it to within an inch of its life, find out what every dimension means, look for correlations, make sure your numeric fields contain only numbers, make sure your date fields are relevant, check for odd locational data, verify your Staff IDs all exist and so on and so on. Once you’ve gained that vital understanding of the data, you can then begin to draw the real insight from it, ready for your senior stakeholders. At this juncture, Data Visualisation comes in to its own.

Why use a Data Visualisation tool to produce reports? Put simply, it’s what they were built to do. An unholy partnership between Excel and PowerPoint is often the weapon of choice for producing graphs and presentations, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I’ve been there and done that. You can quickly produce some informative charts to meet the given requirements. But there are a couple of issues that arise from doing this:

 1. Masses of Graphs – we’ve all heard the wondrous phrase “Death By PowerPoint”. I’ve sat through Steerco, Manco, Exco and all-sorts-of-otherco meetings where the mysterious “MI Guys” have produced and dumped hundreds of graphs into the deck, 4 per page. I’m pretty certain there’s something useful in there, the problem is retaining concentration long enough to figure out what it is.

2. Questions – what if one of the stakeholders asks a question that  your pre-produced graphs just can’t answer? Can you use Excel and PowerPoint to get the answer there and then? Or will you have to go away, work your magic and come back at a later date, say, next month? Can your business really afford to wait until that next meeting?
The speed and interactivity of a Data Visualisation tool will immediately catch the attention that your Excel Graphs fused into PowerPoint could only ever dream of. All of these moving parts, the drill-downs, the drill-ups, the sliders, the maps, no pies, no donuts. WOW. The audience will be captivated.

The best part is, if you’ve done it right, the audience will also be captivated by what your visualisation is telling them. It won’t just look better, it will actually add some serious value to your business. You can change the charts and graphs and maps as you go, if questions crop up, you can make the adjustments, and seconds later, the answer(s) will be there on screen. No more scrolling through your hundred charts, and no more waiting a month for an answer. It’s all there, in technicolor.

Sure, Data Visualisation might just look like bells and whistles, but beneath the flashy surface, there’s an awful lot of substance to back it up. Delay no longer, just give it a whirl. What have you got to lose?

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.

06 January 2016

What the recent JANET attack tells us about Social Media Risk

You may have heard about the recent attack on JANET, the UK’s higher education research and education network that serves over 18 million users. It was attacked using a series of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, preventing students and Higher Education Institution (HEI) employees alike from gaining access to the internet and their university networks. Such an attack was not anticipated or expected on the external IT infrastructure, which in turn increased its impact. But why is social media an important aspect of this? After the initial impact of the attack, it is believed that the attackers were monitoring the twitter updates on JANET in order to adapt their attacks and to continue disrupting the network. This in itself highlights a number of concerns for organisations – there is a direct conflict between the need to use social media to your advantage to get important messages out to customers and for engagement, however how much is ‘too much’ information and exactly what is appropriate or acceptable to put out in order to ensure you are protected (whether your organisation, your customers or you personally)?

Social media is an increasingly used tool by attackers – whether it to be to social engineer firms, commit identity theft, conduct phishing attacks or worse. You only need to look at some of the statistics on social media cyber attacks and threats to realise the issues we are now facing. For example, 1 in 10 social network users said they had fallen victim to a scam or fake link on social network platforms; more than 600,000 Facebook accounts are compromised every day.  Cyber bullying is on the rise due to social media use, with an astounding 55% of teens witnessing bullying over social networks; there is an increasing amount of account hijacking occurring on high profile accounts - all of this further emphasises the extent to which cyber threats and criminals have evolved through the adoption of social media. 

I’m not saying that social media shouldn’t be used, in fact quite the opposite. It is a brilliant tool for organisations and society in general. It comes with a number of advantages and benefits, but because it is a fairly new tool in society we’ve been slow to grasp the scale of the impact using it can have on an individual or an organisation. This is why it needs a lot of thought and understanding. Once you have this and can govern those risks, the benefits are huge, particularly in terms of increasing competitive advantage, customer engagement and the ability to raise your profile and reputation.

Ultimately, it is becoming increasingly important to ensure that from the board level filtered down throughout organisations and the general public, appropriate education and strategies are in place to effectively mitigate the risks of its usage. It may carry a risk but the benefits it can bring when you get it right are incredible – plus social media isn’t going away any time soon. Find out more here.

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology on your industry, then please get in touch with Euan Cameron.

05 January 2016

What role does data play in your decision making?

by Tom Lewis Deals Chief Technology Officer

Since the beginning of time, mankind has captured and analysed data. And as processes have become more automated, devices more connected and increased technological capacity enables greater processing ability at ever lower costs, data and the associated analytics is now available to us in unprecedented volumes.

One effect of this is that at all levels in an organisation, managers and leaders have an ever increasing wealth of analytics available to inform the decisions that they need to make. But how are they harnessing this ever growing ability and translating it into valuable and actionable decisions.

Last year, PwC and the Economist Intelligence Unit, wrote a report called Gut and Gigabytes which found that experience and intuition are the main inputs into the decision making process for big, high value, strategic decisions. Data and analysis was only the third most important input on the list.

But as I read the continual flow of news articles about analytics, big data and artificial intelligence (AI), I think that we are agreed that this will change. The question is not if; it is when and how is this adoption of new technologies manifesting itself in mainstream corporate decision making.

So this year we have evolved the survey to explore how decision making is changing, particularly at the boundaries of automation and human judgement. We would like to better understand how executives are using data and analytics to make better and faster decisions.
And we have based the survey approach on the innovative SenseMaker methodology that uses a combination of three-way triads and micro-narratives to deliver a deeper level of insight than is achieved in a normal longitudinal survey.

Feedback so far on the survey tells us that it provides a useful framework to reflect on decision making in your organisation. Please take a few moments to complete the survey and see whether it gets you thinking!

You can check back in a few months when we will be able to share the results.

This blog post was originally published on the world in beta.

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.

by Tom Lewis Deals Chief Technology Officer