Creating a People-Driven Culture of Analytics: The Message of Strata 2014

Posted on: February 14th, 2014 by Guest Blogger 1 Comment

In years past, Strata has celebrated the power of raw technology, so it was interesting to note how much the keynotes on Wednesday focused on applications, models, and how to learn and change rather than on speeds and feeds.

After attending the keynotes and some fascinating sessions, it seems clear that the blinders are off. Big data and data science have been proven in practice by many innovators and early adopters. The value of new forms of data and methods of analysis are so well established that there’s no need for exaggerated claims. Hadoop can do so many cool things that it doesn’t have to pretend to do everything, now or in the future. Indeed, the pattern in place at Facebook, Netflix, the Obama Campaign, and many other organizations with muscular data science and engineering departments is that MPP SQL and Hadoop sit side by side, each doing what they do best.

In his excellent session, Kurt Brown, Director, Data Platform at Netflix, recalled someone explaining that his company was discarding its data warehouse and putting everything on Hive. Brown responded, “Why would you want to do that?” What was obvious to Brown, and what he explained at length, is that the most important thing any company can do is assemble technologies and methods that serve its business needs. Brown demonstrated the logic of creating a broad portfolio that serves many different purposes.

Real Value for Real People
The keynotes almost all celebrated applications and models. Vendors didn’t talk about raw power, but about specific use cases and ease-of-use. Farrah Bostic, a marketing and product design consultant, recommended ways to challenge assumptions and create real customer intimacy. This was a key theme: Use the data to understand a person in their terms not yours. Bostic says you will be more successful if you focus on creating value for the real people who are your customers instead of extracting value from some stilted and limited model of a consumer. A skateboarding expert and a sports journalist each explained models and practices for improving performance. This is a long way from the days when a keynote would show a computer chewing through a trillion records.

Geoffrey Moore, the technology and business philosopher, was in true provocative form. He asserted that big data and data science are well on their way to crossing the chasm because so many upstarts pose existential threats to established businesses. This pressure will force big data to cross the chasm and achieve mass adoption. His money quote: "Without big data analytics, companies are blind and deaf, wandering out onto the Web like deer on the freeway.”

An excellent quote to be sure, but it goes too far. Moore would have been more accurate and less sensational if he said, “Without analytics,” not “Without big data analytics.” The reason that MPP SQL and Hadoop have made such a perfect pair is because more than one type of data and method of analysis is needed. Every business needs all the relevant data it can get to understand the people it does business with.

The Differentiator: A Culture of Analytics
The challenge I see companies facing lies in creating a culture of analytics. Tom Davenport has been a leader in promoting analytics as a means to competitive advantage. In his keynote at Strata Rx in September 2013, Davenport stressed the importance of integration.

In his session at Strata this year, Bill Franks, Chief Analytics Officer at Teradata, put it quite simply, "Big data must be an extension of an existing analytics strategy. It is an illusion that big data can make you an analytics company."

When people return from Strata and roll up their sleeves to get to work, I suspect that many will realize that it’s vital to make use of all the data in every way possible. But one person can only do so much. For data to have the biggest impact, people must want to use it. Implementing any type of analytics provides supply. Leadership and culture create demand. Companies like CapitalOne and Netflix don’t do anything without looking at the data.

I wish there were a shortcut to creating a culture of analytics, but there isn’t, and that’s why it’s such a differentiator. Davenport’s writings are probably the best guide, but every company must figure this out based on its unique situation.

Supporting a Culture of Analytics
If you are a CEO, your job is to create a culture of analytics so that you don’t end up like Geoffrey Moore’s deer on the freeway. But if you have Kurt Brown’s job, you must create a way to use all the data you have, to use the sweet spot of each technology to best effect, and to provide data and analytics to everyone who wants them.

At a company like Netflix or Facebook, creating such a data supply chain is a matter of solving many unique problems connected with scale and advanced analytics. But for most companies, common patterns can combine all the modern capabilities into a coherent whole.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the thought leaders at Teradata lately and closely studying their Unified Data Architecture. Anyone who is seeking to create a comprehensive data and analytics supply chain of the sort in use at leading companies like Netflix should be able to find inspiration in the UDA, as described in a white paper called “Optimizing the Business Value of All Your Enterprise Data.”

The paper does excellent work in creating a framework for data processing and analytics that unifies all the capabilities by describing four use cases: the file system, batch processing, data discovery, and the enterprise data warehouse. Each of these use cases focuses on extracting value from different types of data and serving different types of users. The paper proposes a framework for understanding how each use case creates data with different business value density. The highest volume interaction takes place with data of the highest business value density. For most companies, this is the enterprise data warehouse, which contains a detailed model of all business operations that is used by hundreds or thousands of people. The data discovery platform is used to explore new questions and extend that model. Batch processing and processing of data in a file system extract valuable signals that can be used for discovery and in the model of the business.

While this structure doesn’t map exactly to that of Netflix or Facebook, for most businesses, it supports the most important food groups of data and analytics and shows how they work together.

The refreshing part of Strata this year is that thorny problems of culture and context are starting to take center stage. While Strata will always be chock full of speeds and feeds, it is even more interesting now that new questions are driving the agenda.

By: Dan Woods, Forbes Blogger and Co-Founder of Evolved Media

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