Friday 28 May 2010

Where is Business Intelligence Heading?

It seems that organisations are increasingly falling into one of two camps:
  1. Those with a strong information-based culture of decision making
  2. Those working to achieve an information-based culture
I guess there might be a third category of businesses who believe they are managing just fine as they are, but they are certainly swimming against the tide.

If Microsoft is correct in their predictions of the way the market is heading, BI and Performance Management will be in the hands of those who need the information before too long. In the same way that Excel democratized number crunching, BI tools are climbing down from their lofty positions above ordinary folk doing ordinary jobs making ordinary decisions. Ordinary folk want and need better information to make their not-so-ordinary decisions that make or break businesses every day.

I suspect information transparency and performance management will become the big issues of the decade within medium and large sized companies. And what the big boys are doing today, smaller businesses will be doing tomorrow. So the information-based culture is something that will affect everyone at some point.

Social media tools like wikis, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are the public and high profile tip of the iceberg. Under the surface there are many businesses working hard to ensure information flow gets better and more productive. Costs are coming down, and tools are getting better. It won’t be long before those without the right information to do their jobs well will be wanting to know why …

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Designing a better mouse-trap

The Chief Executive Officer of Dyson was being interviewed on the radio as I drove to work this morning. As the weather gets warmer, thoughts turn to cooling and Dyson have invented a new desk fan. It looks cool as well as keeping you cool, and is on sale in my local Comet at about £200. That’s a lot to pay for a desk fan. It does, however, look good and work well. Like their vacuum cleaners and hand dryers.

Before you think this is a blogomercial for Dyson, it struck me how brave it was to design a better fan. Or a better vacuum cleaner come to that. Fans worked perfectly well before Dyson came along, as did vacuum cleaners. In both instances they have only made marginal improvements to the original. But those improvements, plus eye-catching design, have been enough to capture a significant market share in their field. It’s impressive, bold and extremely difficult to do.

I have a friend who has developed a better way of fastening a bra. Another problem that you might be forgiven for thinking doesn’t need solving – but bra fastenings have pretty much stayed the same for an awfully long time.

People who dare to do things better, more stylishly and more efficiently are not given an easy ride. But thank heavens they are a determined lot. Without them life would be more difficult or less interesting in all sorts of ways.

So here's to the inventers across the land who are making our lives better, whilst making their own lives more difficult.

Monday 24 May 2010

How Things Change

Over the weekend I was in Yorkshire celebrating my parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary. It was a time for celebration and reflection– quietly remembering absent friends and delighting in the company of those who could be there with us. 50 years sure is a long time for two people to be together. There was much reminiscing, as well as astonishment that 50 years could have passed so quickly.

I was struck how business changes in the same way – very slowly day by day, but quickly decade by decade. And of course it can quite often take time to adjust to the new order. The internet is a great example. During a few short years it has been transformed from "slow and static" to "instant and interactive". The explosion in social media, video and the speed with which information now proliferates is a bit bewildering. But of course there were many signs along the way, none of it happened instantly.

I guess the trick is to look forward, rather than backwards. Enjoying each other’s company while we can, so there are no regrets when we cannot. And reacting to trends as they start, and not when it’s too late. Like many things in life, it is a great deal easier to say than to do, but every effort helps: whether it is a family party, or a new Twitter account.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Lateness comes before a fall

Taking up running has been interesting to say the least: interesting in just how difficult it is (not as fit or as slim as I used to be) and interesting in how it has changed my life. Saturday mornings used to mean a slow start to the day after a busy week, these days they mean a prompt start to get to the banks of the Thames for a 9am run.

Unfortunately last Saturday also taught me the importance of being on time. Not because it’s important to be on time, which of course it is, but important because it gives time to prepare before running. Which, as everyone except me knows, is tremendously important. To cut a short story even shorter, last Saturday I was late for the 5K Park Run and twisted my ankle in my enthusiasm to start with everyone else. After pounding my ankle for 5 happy kilometres, it is now paying me back as only unhappy ankles know how.

I am now hobbling painfully to see the doctor and have already been warned that I am likely to be off running for quite a few weeks. The disappointment is almost as painful as the ankle.

So once I stop feeling sorry for myself, and can walk again, I’ll be trying to get it strong enough to resume training. But not before quite a few races have come and gone. That's one training schedule that will need reworking! Oh woe is me!

Monday 17 May 2010

What is Business Intelligence?

Business Intelligence (BI) is the umbrella term for a number of technologies that make data more useful within an organisation. Whilst its roots are firmly in the computer software industry, it has been driven by a business desire for better information.

There is nothing new behind the motives that drive Business Intelligence. As long as we have had computers we have also produced reports to inform business decision-making.

What is new is the power of the software techniques to analyse and present data in a cost effective way.

In many ways, Business Intelligence is an odd name. It succeeds in simultaneously alienating both those who use the technology and those who do not. No business could be described as unintelligent. Talented, intelligent and determined business leaders are a prerequisite in starting any business.

Data Intelligence might be more descriptive.

Most businesses acquire more and more data, in more and more systems:
  • Current and legacy systems

  • Financial, customer relationship management, HR and operational systems

  • Database and spreadsheet systems
The list is long for even the smallest company. In each system data is collected, stored and reports are generated. The larger a company gets, the more challenging it becomes to make sense of all that data. Analysts are employed, more software is used, and time is spent trying to figure out what is happening within the business, and why.

What is needed is a way of making all that valuable data accessible, easy to use and insightful – not just by analysts, but by business people who make decisions every day. Which is where Business Intelligence come in – bringing the data in all those systems to life. It’s all about more intelligent use of data, to help business people make more intelligent decisions.

Friday 14 May 2010

Sports psychology

As the London Olympics and my own ambitious half marathon edge closer, I’m struck by how useful sports psychology is in business. Of course, this is hardly a new thought. Many sports people have made the transition into business life and have carved out successful careers using their planning and visualisation skills. Sebastian Coe’s book “The Winning Mind” talks of the importance of having a shared vision that everyone understands and believes in, and his success on and off the track make whatever he has to say noteworthy.

I’m struck by how setting a goal like a half marathon, and believing that somehow I can do it, starts a chain of activities that little by little bring me closer to my goal (as well as sore legs). Business is no different. Setting a goal that everyone believes is stretching, but possible, also starts tasks and activities that bring the team closer to achieving their objective. In both disciplines there are ups and downs, delight and despair, but there is no doubt about the magnetism of a crystal clear goal.

The difference, of course, between business and sports is that business goals are often more complex. The chances of success are less clearly defined, and often they rely on many people working together. All of this makes business objectives a great deal less straight forward than running a half marathon. I think, though, that there is enough overlap for the analogy to be useful.

The lesson is clear – the more clarity and visibility you can bring to your goals, the more likely they are to be achieved. And they have the added advantage of not hurting your feet.

Thursday 13 May 2010

SharePoint 2010 - here at last!

Microsoft’s SharePoint 2010 was released yesterday. For me it has been a very long wait. SharePoint 2010 includes a new feature called Performance Point Services, which enable users to create dashboards and track KPIs. It is exciting stuff. We’ve been running the beta for some time, so it will be great to cut across to the full version.

I celebrated by attending a BI seminar at Microsoft yesterday. Well, I didn’t quite celebrate as my running schedule didn’t allow me to have a glass of celebratory champagne, but the quality of the presentations more than made up for it. Rafal Lukawiecki presented a day packed with demos and explanation of what Microsoft’s Business Intelligence suite was capable of. It was really inspiring.

Business intelligence is a discipline that is still very much in the hands of the IT department and far too few business users. Yet if Microsoft’s vision is realised, it will be as prevalent as spreadsheets are today. Better and faster information for all. I’ll drink to that. At least I would, if I was allowed to …

Monday 10 May 2010

The data behind data-driven marketing

I had a promotional email the other week. Before you think I’m the saddest person on the planet, I have to admit that I get lots of promotional emails ever week. Most of them don’t match up with my current wish list, so they get deleted without further fanfare.

This one, however, teetered on the edge. Was I interested, wasn’t I? Well a little, but only a little. Not enough to do anything about it. So I just left it on the “too-difficult” pile and got on with the “screamingly-urgent” pile.

For reasons that are far too complicated to explain, a long hot bath on a Sunday afternoon prompted a change of heart. I was reading and thinking, plotting and scheming (the bath is surely the most underrated place to work) and I remembered the email. Brilliant – it was just what I needed! I responded that very afternoon (everyone works 24/7 don’t they?) and felt pleased with my relaxed creativity. On Monday afternoon I called the company to check the details. No, they said, the offer wasn’t as described. No, they couldn’t sanction such a thing. They would have to get someone to call me back. Somewhat aggrieved I put the phone down.

It seemed the left hand and the right hand were working independently. The return phone call assured me that all was well and not to worry. A confirmation email set my mind at rest.

Only a few days later I had another email from the same company offering me the same offer. They clearly hadn’t matched up my response with their original list.

This wasn’t a small Mom and Pop organisation, but an International business to business brand that should know better. Maybe they think it doesn’t matter? Maybe organising their data in such a way that enables prospects and customers to feel valued is too much trouble. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t reflect well on them or their brand.

Data-driven marketing isn’t complicated, but it is individual. Whilst we know that emails aren’t written for each of us individually, it is neither polite nor good for business to ignore responses. In such a digital age, communicating clearly to both front-line staff as well as prospective customers, should be a given.

Email isn't as expensive to send as direct mail used to be, but it has a cost with people's patience. If we want our offers to be read we have to make them relevant. And that means paying attention to responses.

Friday 7 May 2010

First past the post

As the final result in the UK General Election 2010 (or should I say the first General Election of 2010?) has been announced, there has been one clear winner in terms of data-feeds. As frustrated news addicts were wondering what was taking Devon West and Torridge so long to declare, news was already spreading. Where? On the newest news-feed on the block – Twitter.

The Labour candidate was Tweeting-As-He-Waited and announced the news that that Tories had held the seat. It didn’t take longer before the official Conservative Tweeter announced their victory. It took other news providers 30 minutes or so to catch up and update their web pages. Of course it would – it takes longer to update and check a web page with comprehensive information than it does to Tweet 140 characters of news.

Does any of this matter? Well, perhaps not very much, but it’s interesting that when people are eager for news, they turn to whoever can provide the information the fastest. During the Eurostar train problems back in February, the company was criticized for using Twitter to promote its services, rather than update passengers with the latest news.

For those who don’t see the point of Twitter, or wonder whether it’s just a fad (you know who you are), today was an interesting example of how relevant data will be valued in whatever format is available.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Voice of the Country

Today the UK votes for its next government. It is the ultimate in customer satisfaction surveys.

It’s still early in the day, so I have no idea what percentage of people will vote, but I suspect the turnout might be high. We are just coming out of a deep recession and have witnessed the dirty laundry of MP’s expenses claims. I expect a few people might have an opinion or two on both matters.

Only yesterday I had a last minute email from a local MP pleading his case. The thought of losing your job focuses the mind somewhat. I doubt he has much to worry about, but we shall see. As in every customer survey, there are always a few surprises.

Yesterday I talked about interactive marketing, and the sometimes slow response of the marketing profession to engage with customers. Maybe the government will be next in having to face the realities of a better informed and more demanding electorate. The internet allowed Barack Obama to embrace Facebook and social media to get his message across, but it’s a two-way street.

Elected governments and public servants now have an opportunity to listen to people’s views long before election time, but they have to choose to listen. It will be interesting to see how the next government choses to interact. It will be a government born into a more interactive era than ever before.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Can Interactive Marketing take off?

Like many people I’m doing my level best to embrace social media. Hey, I’ve got a blog and I’m on Twitter. I’ve also got a FaceBook page and I’m on LinkedIn, even though the whole bally lot of them seem strange and rather uncontrollable. Totally uncontrollable if you really want to know: I’m just not used to people writing on my wall.

Is that a bad thing? I know I’m not alone. I recently saw one leading marketing specialist publically say that Twitter was a waste of time and he wasn’t going to bother with it any more. A completely reasonable opinion, many might say. He may well be right for all I know.

Yet social media does seem to have a life of its own now. Facebook has a population larger than the USA. Can you imagine? Over 300m people in the USA and over 400m on Facebook.

Despite all this socialising on the internet I’m not completely convinced that marketers are becoming more interactive. Yes, they write blogs. Yes, they publish newsletters. But so far, so much business as usual, just on a different platform: broadcasting a message just as marketers have always done.

Interactive marketing is a conversation, not a broadcast. It’s the comments bit of a blog, the discussion on Twitter, and being happy when people write on your wall, whatever they write. (Yikes!)

The potential for interactivity is a new concept in marketing that I suspect will take time to be fully embraced. Most tweople on Twitter seem to be intent on broadcasting their message rather than interacting, which is a shame. Isn’t interaction with our prospects and customers what we have been waiting for? Isn’t it a huge opportunity? It has to be – but one that will probably need a change of mindset to work properly. What do you think?