Wednesday 29 April 2009

Reading the meter

Performance management in the living room

I get very strange mail these days. I used to know where I was with what is less than affectionately known as “junk mail”. Companies wrote to you so that you could buy more of their product or service. Depending on what it was, I either did or didn’t, then I threw the thing in the bin.

These days, that’s all changed. I get mailings from my electricity company imploring me to use less electricity. They gave me a free counter to tell me how much electricity I’m burning up – the idea being that when I can see how much it costs to have the heaters on I’ll be less inclined to. It works. I’m using less electricity. They sounded less than thrilled when I phoned them with the news, which is confusing, but I think I’ve saved a few quid off the ‘leccy bill.

Of course the other thing that’s changed is that I’m not allowed to throw the junk mail in the bin. I have to recycle it. I’ve not heard the term “recyclable mail” but I’m sure it will catch on in time ….

So all of this got me thinking – put an energy counter in my living room and I start to behave differently. I look at my counter when the washing machine goes on. I have a quick peek as the iron heats up. I stare at the thing in total puzzlement when I think I have turned everything off but I’m still using enough electricity to power half of Bangalore. I’m quietly smug when it tells me that my current usage is equivalent to 31p a day, and on the war path when it tells me the next bill will be more than the mortgage. In short, I’m a changed woman.

This is a long way round of pointing out that this little device has made me both aware of the energy I’m using, and it has altered my behaviour. I’m no longer tolerant of absent-mindedness when it comes to turning out lights - sort of scary as it means I am turning into my father.

It’s an effective little device that is saving me money, and reducing the need to generate unnecessary electricity across the country. In fact, it’s a real life performance management device for the home, where performance = saving money. And a great demonstration of how simply being aware of the numbers improves performance. It works in the home, and it works in business.

It also made me wonder how much more electricity or gas we could save if we had smart meters. Meters located in the home, rather than some cold inaccessible place, that told us how much we are spending.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Energy rhetoric, but little data

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Milliband, argued in The Times yesterday that “we must try every option to shift to a low-carbon world”. He reasoned that energy security and climate change commitments were sufficient incentive to back the government’s policy of building new nuclear power plants.

I, for one, would like to see more data.

Let’s not forget that nuclear power is also a threat to the planet. Whilst melting ice is not a popular move with that most potent symbol of our planet – the polar bear - neither is waste that stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. The choices may not be palatable, but surely all the more reason to have good data, presented clearly.

Renewable energy, he said should not be dismissed: wind is producing enough power for 2 million homes. 2,000,000 is indeed a large number – an impressive number even. But it is a meaningless number in the debate about energy and climate change. How many homes and businesses need power? And at what cost?

Milliband rightly pointed to the future with ideas such as “clean coal” which as soon as the technology is ready the government will ensure will be 100% committed to. Whilst he was quick to quantify the potential jobs that will be created through this R&D, he was less keen to share the costs even though they are equally quantifiable.

Neither did he talk of other technology which might provide low-carbon alternatives a great deal more palatable for our polar bears than sitting on radioactive waste for a million years. Yet they do exist.

This whole issue is quantifiable: cost of power, amounts of subsidies, carbon emissions, temperature changes, sea levels, thickness of ice, number of species. I could go on – they are many and varied and all absolutely quantifiable. Yet for some reason we prefer pictures of polar bears to clear data which would help us make good decisions about what mix of power to rely on.

The UK has armies of statisticians paid to collect, collate and present exactly this data. Couldn’t Mr Milliband have included some of their work? He was writing for The Times, after all.

Monday 27 April 2009

What goes into a hot shower

With on-demand electricity, heat and hot water it’s not surprising we don’t give energy a second thought. My early morning shower is over before I’m properly awake – that’s how little I think about it. But someone somewhere has to generate the power to heat my water, and as I live close to the Oxfordshire border I guess that would be Didcot power station.

A coal fired power station isn’t everyone’s idea of a good evening out. Luckily everyone wasn’t invited, so it was just me and the rest of the Southern Branch of the Energy Institute. They were a keen and knowledgeable bunch and indulgently tolerant of a woman more used to an office than an industrial site, and whose hard hat insisted on being worn at a jaunty angle.

I’ve passed the Didcot’s huge cooling towers often and thought them something of a blot, but on a sunny spring evening, and close up, they really are spectacular – majestic even. Which is more than you can say for the rest of the site. However, the sheer scale of the place is awe-inspiring. The turbine hall is enormous – it would swallow up the Tate Modern’s old turbine hall many times over and still have room for dessert. Unlike the Tate Modern, however, this is very much a working space. Although Didcot A was commissioned in 1972 – it still has one of the largest capacities of all power plants in the UK – almost 2000MW. (The site at Didcot has two power stations – Didcot A which is dual coal and gas fired and Didcot B which is much newer and is gas fired).

As the energy and environmental debates rumble on coal fired power stations don’t get a good press. But these old ladies of power generation do as much as they can to be environmentally friendly, for example including biomass as part of the mix. It’s not as much as anyone would like but power stations like Didcot A were designed in a different age for different priorities. Until we figure out some better ways of heating our hot water, it is keeping some 2 million people showered and heated.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

6 things that seem to be true ... but are not

  1. It should be easier than this. It should, shouldn’t it? But it isn’t. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers writes some fascinating things about why some people are successful and others are not.

  2. Other people don’t struggle like I do. Paul Simon said some people’s lives roll easy – and maybe he knew. My suspicion is that they had to work pretty hard too.

  3. We have enough technology. We are too curious to be ever satisfied with the technology we have. There will always be something faster, smaller and whizzier. We won’t necessarily need it, but we will buy it anyway - particularly if it comes with a cool case.

  4. Children grow up faster than they did in my day. Maybe, but children are still children – even though they sound scarily sophisticated. Love, nurturing and listening are needed as much today as ever.

  5. You can build loyalty. Maybe you can buy it for a short term – but the battle starts over again every day. Business intelligence and performance management don’t top the IT Director’s shopping list for fun.

  6. We can save enough energy to make a difference. After getting a new electricity meter counter gadget it has now become a hanging offence to turn on the spotlights in the hallway in my house. Using the last of the loo paper is a minor offence by comparison. Everyone is going green and saving energy – and quite right too. But it still won’t be enough to let all the world’s children grow up at the speed they are determined to.

Monday 20 April 2009

Status codes at Terminal 5

We are all used to status codes – they are not exactly new. En e-mail may be sent, received, read or flagged for follow-up. A training course may be archived, current or planned. I could go on – most business software will use status codes in some form or another. They convey relevant and pre-selected information about whatever it is you are tracking. So far, so unexciting.

I did see some neat status codes over the weekend at a very swish place called Heathrow Terminal 5. It was my first visit to this lovely new terminal which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

I was impressed: imposing architecture, systems that appeared to work well, and lots of showers for little people. Actually I think they were fountains but I suspect they will be very popular as showers as the weather gets hotter. It’s the first thing you want to do when you get off a plane, isn’t it?

Back to status codes - vital at the airport. I was in arrivals – the time shown on the board could be: estimated or actual. An additional status code showed when bags were being unloaded – now that's useful.

What really impressed me about these status codes however, was the board next to it. It had helpful information like the amount of time you should expect to wait for someone once the aircraft has landed. How long it takes for someone with or without a bag to get to the arrivals hall – now that’s not just useful, it’s actually helpful. It’s not rocket science, but it is thoughtful and genuinely helpful.
Of course it was a sunny Sunday and the incoming flight was on time. The arrivals hall wasn’t too crowded and I suspect the systems weren’t being stressed too much.

It is when it all goes wrong that people and systems come together to make decisions and ensure boards such as these give genuinely helpful information, and T5 has some making up to do in that department.

However, for the 95% of the time that things go well it’s an improvement on what I’ve seen before. And an interesting way to think about status codes – maybe they are a little too pithy sometimes?

Friday 17 April 2009


After the compulsory visit to a National Trust property over the Easter weekend, I was struck by the importance of standards. So I was going to write a few paragraphs about how National Trust properties seem to maintain the same standards wherever you go – the stately home may be different, but the soup and the queue is always the same. Perhaps a little unfair as it was the only sunny day over the long weekend and the standards at National Trust properties are consistently good: including the soup.

But a visit to the Royal Opera House to see Tamara Rojo dancing Giselle put pay to any discussion about Dyrham Park. You can’t compare soup to arabesque, so I shan't even try.

Giselle is the ultimate romantic ballet: young girl dies of a broken heart after being cruelly misled by a young man who should have known better. The first act is falling in love, realising the truth about a cruel deception and inevitable heartbreak. Tamara Rojo was wonderful both in her exuberance at her first love and then her insane despair at losing it. It is the second act, however, which is so hauntingly beautiful. The corps de ballet were dramatic and determined in dancing the young male lovers to death. The mists and forest effects were convincing once you allowed yourself to be transported to a world where young jilted girls are destined to be spirits forever more. The bridal white of the Wilis was pure ballet: magical.

As a ballet fan I was enraptured. As a business analyst I am always fascinated by the mechanics of the Royal Opera House. There wasn’t a seat to be had for the performance (I know because I checked) and it’s the same every time – consistently dazzling productions, and a consistently full house. Of course, like a swan gliding on the surface of swan lake, but paddling like crazy underneath, the Opera House has not always had a reputation for good management.

I do, however, get the impression that things have changed. Stronger financial controls, better marketing (book a glass of champagne with your ticket) I am sure have made a difference. Let’s not forget of course that they have a world-class product on offer, which never fails to delight their audience. Behind the success is a great deal of hard work and exacting standards both on and off stage.

Little alters my view that the Royal Opera House is a fascinating case study in excellence. I just need a few more visits to be sure ….

Thursday 16 April 2009

What is data mining?

After a couple of posts about coal and diamonds I thought it might be a good idea to post a straightforward answer to the question: What is data mining?

Data mining is the applications of statistical techniques and artificial intelligence to find patterns in data that are not apparent using queries or other database techniques. Data patterns can provide insights into behaviours and trends that would otherwise remain hidden. Data mining is perhaps more descriptively known as knowledge discovery in data.

The statistical techniques are run as software programmes which allow parameters to define how the algorithms are applied. The pattern-finding process can be run on different data sets and with different parameter settings. Models can be refined to improve the accuracy of the results.

Although data mining algorithms can be run on any data file, they are often applied to files where data has been brought together from a number of different sources. Different statistical techniques, or algorithms, are suited to different types of data, and different problems.

The basic premise of data mining is that predictions can be made about the future from a sample of past behaviour, ie the existing data files. For example, theatre bookings together with other information about those who made the bookings can be used to find patterns, and predict what type of productions they might book in the future. Segments can be found and different marketing messages sent to them according to their profile.

Data mining is the automatic or semi automatic means of finding patterns and making predictions.

Data mining has now been built into Microsoft’s SQL Server database: starting with two algorithms in SQL Server 2000, extended to 7 algorithms in SQL Server 2005, and with some further enhancements in SQL Server 2008.

Get in touch if you would like to find out whether your data files are suitable for data mining.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Six rules about risk (and life)

One of my favourite software writers observes that the quickest way to deliver a project is not to make mistakes. It is good advice (although not that easy to follow), and risk management is part of project and performance management. As many organisations have too graphically illustrated, there is little point in aiming for peak performance if you destroy the very organisation you are trying to manage.

A friend recently sent me Dr Aswath Damodaran’s Six Rules of Risk Management, which I liked a lot. At the considerable risk of getting a reputation for loving lists, here it is:

  1. Where there is an upside there is also a downside
  2. There are no free lunches
  3. There is no risk in the past - study the past but remember risk is in the future
  4. Risk management is everyone’s problem
  5. Plan to be a risk taker - hire the right people
  6. Do everything you want to manage risk, but at the end of the day you also need luck.

An interesting list – I would quibble slightly with 2 and 6 – but no more than quibble. A lunch, at the end of the day is a lunch; losing Barings Bank (or whatever) is a little more serious. And luck is a highly debatable entity, don’t you think?

Thursday 9 April 2009

Emotional Intelligence

Award-winning business intelligence that changes lives

Business intelligence means different things to different people. But underlying any business intelligence project two things are normally found:
  1. Desire to improve performance

  2. Quantitative analysis
The one thing you don’t see in the above list is emotion. You can’t quantify emotion, and it’s not an easy thing to manage. Which is why the work done at Pfizer to get an important new drug into the market is so interesting.

It took business intelligence specialists’ persistence to uncover emotional barriers to a new drug that makes the lives of HIV sufferers considerably more comfortable.

The problem
Celsentri is a new drug that can be taken orally to slow down the HIV virus in some patients. Trials have shown the drug to be both effective and well tolerated within certain groups. However, a test was needed to identify those who would benefit. In an increasingly commercialised medical world, the cost of the test was seen as a barrier. However – despite the test being made available free of charge, there was still resistance to prescribing the drug. Why? It didn’t make sense – it was better for the patient, and the barrier had been removed from the doctors.

The solution
The business intelligence team already realised there was a hidden barrier to prescribing the new drug. Research was commissioned which used a three-pronged approach:
  1. The research focused on before, during, and after the decision to switch treatment.

  2. In-home interviews were conducted to allow in-depth and open discussions. Patients were encouraged to talk about problems with the decision to change drugs, and how they were advised.

  3. Doctors were asked to map what they did, and when, onto a timeline. This removed ambiguity in discussions and allowed patterns to be seen in their decision making.
What emerged was that cost played little or no part in doctors’ reluctance to prescribe the drug. What was important were timescales to get results back, and that the test removed some of the decision-making away from skilled and experienced consultants. In other words, the reaction was part logical, and part emotional.

Pfizer changed the test, and with a renewed understanding of the problem, re-launched to a more accepting audience. As a result patients are now benefiting from a drug which is effective, and also easier to take.

Pfizer called their approach the Pfizer 6-D’s:
  • Define the question
  • Dig to address the question
  • Discover customer perspectives
  • Distill responses to build insights
  • Develop marketing programs based on customer insights
  • Deliver based on evidence
Unsurprisingly, the Business Intelligence specialist at Pfizer who oversaw the project, Andrew Sims, is now in line for a prestigious British Healthcare Business Intelligence award.

His approach is instructive - not only within the healthcare market, but for anyone involved with customers. Whilst Business Intelligence is a quantitative discipline, people are still people, and remembering the emotional angle is important.

Wednesday 8 April 2009


How can a book about statistics be so interesting? Malcolm Gladwell of Blink and Tipping Point fame has written a fascinating book about why some people are successful and some are not. I’ve just finished reading this meandering but gripping account of why where you come from is important. Your birthday, birth year, home town, and parents’ socio-economic group all influence your chances of success in life. Not rocket science you might think – well, read the book, it certainly challenged some of my beliefs about how things operate.

Of course, he does cherry-pick his examples: the Beatles, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs are all lives that have been well documented. But equally he challenges some deeply held treasured myths: that it’s not just intrinsic talent, but also hard work that sorts the millionaires from the benefit recipients.

His description of KIPP made me late for work this morning. “Work hard. Be nice.” it says on their web site – and hard work is exactly what is turning around the lives of disadvantaged children. Through their own grit and determination, led by an inspiring and visionary program, over 16,000 US students now have a chance of higher education and a better life. The secret? Start school earlier, finish later, do more homework and take less holidays. Genius!

Gladwell also points to Ericsson’ research on Expertise and Expert performance – another great interest of mine. It turns out our great violinists, pianists, chess players and others are in fact those who have practiced the most. They also happen to be very talented, but they have to put the hours in like everyone else.

I have a perverse interest in statistics, and expertise, despite its apparent dryness. This book brings both subjects to life in a way that I can only envy. Data visualization using words, beautifully done.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

I wrote about data mining the other day and got some interesting comments. One was that my analogy of gold wasn’t quite accurate. Analogies are dangerous things.

The comment was quite correct, though, because although data mining can turn up information that is of significant value, it takes work to get there. The new analogy was offered - that of an uncut diamond. A diamond is as unappealing as coal in its raw state – but much sought-after in its cut and polished state.

So it is with data mining – gold coins do not drop into your lap as if you were playing a slot machine, you have to work with the new knowledge to figure out whether you have an uncut diamond or a piece of coal. It could be either – and of course an uncut diamond in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what to do with it might as well be coal.

A business intelligence specialist told me recently that he felt uncovering new knowledge from data was only part of the solution –the remainder being to display the data clearly and to communicate its meaning in an effective way.

Whilst the underlying data mining or statistical skills clearly have to be present, there is an element of polishing and crafting the newly found information to let its brilliance be seen. Perhaps what we need are some rather different skill sets in getting the full message across: communication and visionary skills.

It also goes some way to explain why business intelligence, data mining, performance management, and data visualisation fit together so well.

Monday 6 April 2009

A quotation

Nothing so conclusively proves a man's ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself”.

- Thomas John Watson, Sr.

Thomas Watson was the son of a lumber merchant who worked first for NCR and then the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR) which he soon renamed to International Business Machines. Under his leadership the company went from 400 employees to a world power-house of computing.

This quotation reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci's thoughts:

“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
A thought for a Monday ...

Thursday 2 April 2009

Data mining - digging for gold

Just as coal is the work-horse of modern energy production, so the relational database is the work-horse of modern business. Alright, one is black and dusty and the other is, well, virtual and clean, but the end result is the same - reserves waiting to be mined, whether the reserves are coal or data.

Reserves which may contain gold for their owners.

Before you put on your hard hat with the lamp on the front to break open the server, I’m talking metaphorical gold - metaphorical gold which could be worth a great deal more to your business than the real thing.

First – let’s consider the reserves, which unless you are actually a mining company will be the data stored in databases within your company. Then, let’s look at what the gold might be that’s hidden in the data.

There are few businesses which have not installed a database, whether for managing customers, accounts or stock. As more enterprise-wide systems are installed the amount of data being generated is phenomenal. Some of that data will be immediately accessible through reporting tools. But what could happen if those databases were joined together? What if you could see the sales information together with the customer management information? Or the training data together with sales data? At the risk of mixing enough metaphors to make soup, that would really be cooking with gas ….

But whether it’s one database, or a number joined together, how do you go about looking for gold? Indeed what does gold look like in data terms?

How you find gold is by using a technique called data mining, and what it looks like all depends on your business. It may be customers who are more likely to book a particular type of show in your theatre, or finding which products to bundle together to maximise sales and profit. Or it could be something completely different – depending on what business you are in. The applications for data mining are many and varied and are limited only by business owners' imagination and ambitions.

Data mining is now more accessible and affordable than ever. Products such as Microsoft SQL Server 2008 and 2005 put data mining within the reach of most companies – large or small.

Get in touch if you want to dig for gold in your data. Hard hats with lamps supplied

Wednesday 1 April 2009


I was in London last Sunday wandering around the Science Museum. It doesn’t change much – favourite exhibits like Babbage’s Difference Engine still capture my imagination. It’s always a grand day out – particularly if you have kids and want to see some of the original Wallace and Gromit sets which are on show until November 2009.

But I discovered a new bit on this latest visit – Shipping. I’d already seen Samuel Plimsoll’s statute in London a few months before and the
Plimsoll line story had anchored itself somewhere in my brain. So I was keen to have a look. We wandered round and found models of ships with numbers and lines painted on the sides. It was riveting stuff.

“So did he invent gym shoes as well?” was the inevitable joke. “Nah – that was his brother – they were a talented family…” Yup, the conversation was almost as inspiring as the exhibits.

Of course it wasn’t his brother, but the gym shoes were named after him in a way. When these new canvass shoes became all the rage they had a thin rubber band running around the shoe to stop the top and bottom sections coming apart. It looked like the Plimsoll line that had just been introduced in 1867. So the shoes became plimsolls and Mr Plimsoll was famous twice over.
The shoes didn’t visualise any sort of data, but they were well suited to sport which has inspired business with many great performance management ideas.