The classic Harvard Business School case “Otisline (A)”1 begins with the quote, “… our objective is to go unnoticed.”
Bob Smith (not his real name), source of the quote and Chief Operating Officer at Otis Elevator, knows that elevators tend to remain well under the radar screen until they break. In the elevator business, you can be hugely successful and highly profitable by going unnoticed.
In the global economy, can analytic practitioners be hugely successful in their careers while going unnoticed?
Midway through an ethnographic analysis of the role of analytics in large, global enterprises, I find myself struck by the relative invisibility of analytics and analysts, the people who specialize in analytics.
Despite the laudable efforts of analytic evangelists such as Michael Lewis (Moneyball), Tom Davenport (Competing on Analytics), Jim Davis (The Information Revolution) and Ian Ayres (Super Crunchers), analysts, for the most part, remain hidden in the shadows while analytics remains a mystery to most C-level executives. Should we, as a community, be mobilizing to capture more mind share at the top of the enterprise?
It would be interesting to commission a study from one of the big research firms and ask a broad subset of the planet’s population what first pops to mind when they hear the word “analytics.”
Researchers at the IT Leadership Academy are doing just that in Global 2000 enterprises. The CIO’s response tends to be “reports” (61 percent of the population). Successful CMOs give an answer that includes a subset of “how I do my job/how we generate value/how we deliver on the promise of the brand.” And the people who actually do analytics give all kinds – and lengths – of responses.
However, no one is saying “before we can do analytics we must explain the take-to-the-bank value of analytics to decision makers.” In other words, analysts, the practitioners, have to sell analytics, the discipline.
Our Blind Spot
If one were to write the definitive history of analytics in the modern age, the RAND Corporation would receive significant ink. Like the Institute for Advanced Analytics at North Carolina State University, the Central Michigan University Research Corporation BI Forum and the SAS campus in Cary, North Carolina, RAND is a haven for high-intellect practitioners of quantitative problem solving.
Many sacred spaces of analytics have historically had a blind spot – understanding the behaviors of the humans who materially affect the creation of analytical outputs (primarily bosses and funding sources). Often in our profession we become so intent and so fascinated with quantitative problem solving that we lose sight of the human context in which those problems reside.
Franklin R. Collbohm, former test pilot, right-hand man to the head of Douglas Aircraft during World War II and founder of RAND, recognized this blind spot and asked for help:
“Well, we think we know a lot about planes, and other devices, but there’s one thing we don’t know much about, and that is a certain machine that weighs – oh, between 160 to 185 pounds, is between five-feet-eight and six feet, and is called a ‘pilot.’”2
Remember – RAND’s sole funding source was Air Force generals (i.e., pilots). If we are to optimize the value generated by analytics, we are going to have to humanize our in-organization behaviors. In today’s world, analytics is a product/service that must be sold.
Salespeople will tell you that the basis of sales success is having a great product (which we have) and a strong relationship beachhead from which to pitch the product.
George Washington knew that ultimate victory would not be accomplished on the battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of those engaged. In other words, public relations matters. Washington, despite losing more battles than he won, was eulogized as being “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” When you are gone, will analytics be first in the hearts and minds of your CEO, your CMO and your board of directors?
True victory lies in capturing the imagination, respect and energy of a broad and diverse set of stakeholders, including suppliers, customers and executives.
As analysts, we need to expand the organization’s “smartwidth” – its capability to understand and act on information. Broadband gives us more information. Smartwidth gives your organization more understanding regarding what all this information means.
That’s what executives are looking for: meaning and insight from existing information sources. And that’s what analytics provides. It’s up to us to make that connection clear and start getting noticed as the smartwidth source. Our objective, after all, is NOT to go unnoticed.
- F.W. McFarlan and D.B. Stoddard (July 15, 1990). Harvard Business School 1995-96 Catalog of Best-Selling Teaching Material; Ref No. 9-186-304. The case instructs students in the value of deconstructing an industry into its component parts. (The elevator industry can be divided into two buckets – new equipment sales and service.) The case illustrates how information technology, innovatively, insightfully and courageously deployed, can change the structure of an industry.
- Alex Abella, Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire (NY: Harcourt Inc., 2008).
About the Author
Thornton May, Executive Director and Dean at the IT Leadership Academy, is one of the premier visionaries in the IT industry. His book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics (Wiley and SAS Business Series), positions analysts as heroes of the age we are about to enter.