Embedding analytical power into everyday work

Jeanne Harris, co-author with Tom Davenport on Competing on Analytics and the newly released book Analytics at Work, says analytics can be a powerful enabler of better decision-making, but there's no need to go overboard with it.

Jeanne Harris was co-author with Tom Davenport on the seminal business book of the 2000s decade, Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning. Jeanne and Tom and a another co-author, Robert Morison, just published a new work, titled Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results, which carries the message of Competing on Analytics forward with more practical advice on becoming an information-driven business.

Here are some highlights of my discussion with Jeanne Harris, who is executive research fellow and a senior executive at Accenture’s Institute for High Performance in Chicago:

Is Analytics at Work a sequel to Competing on Analytics?

In some respects, the answer is yes. When Competing on Analytics came out, and it really seemed to touch a nerve with a lot of people. I think we put words around some ideas that a lot of people have been thinking about in different ways. Analytics wasn't just a tool or a technique or a technology that you used as just a one-time effort, but really a sustainable capability if you will.

So that was great. But for every executive like that we met, there were many more who said, 'you know what, I know analytics is good, and I know making decisions based on fact is better than intuition alone. But I don't know that I necessarily want to organize my whole company strategy around analytics. I just want to use analytics to get better. I want to make smarter decisions. I want to be able to execute more consistently, and I want to get better business results.'

As we listened to those people, we realized that there was a much broader audience out there. People  who simply were intrigued by the idea of analytics, and how they might apply it in their own business.

So the new book is really meant to serve a couple of objectives. One is to help those individuals who simply want to improve their analytical capability, whatever it is, wherever it is in their organization. But we also wanted to be able to answer the many questions we got from people who did want to compete on analytics, but need more specific advice.

Another thing the industry is pushing hard these days is access to real-time data. I heard one tech executive say that he wants to be able to close his company's books at any time on a moment's notice, without having to wait for all the data to be in by the end of the month or quarter.

I'm a skeptic in this regard, because I don't think anyone ever got a competitive advantage by closing their books a nanosecond sooner than the next guy. So the emphasis on real-time data is kind of a red herring in some ways. I think we need just-in-time information. So if they close the books 30 minutes, isn't that just as good if they close it in real time?  If it's an hour, would it really make any difference to the corporation?

Where does real-time make a difference?

There are situations where real-time data does make a significant difference. We're moving from point standalone solutions to integrating analytics and data into core business processes themselves. So by embedding analytics into a business process, you're going to end up with more consistent, higher quality results on a much more timely basis. You'll have the ability to look in real time and see in inventory whether you have enough in stock so that you could sell something to someone. Ten years ago, that wasn't a given. It's an important difference.

In the old days, they used to have these decision support systems, where you would be working in your ERP system, and then you would have to stop what you were doing and  go to a different terminal to do some kind of a supply chain optimization model. The only catch was that model was based on data that was two weeks old.  So then you did that analysis, and you went back with that analysis with some idea of what you were going to do next in the ERP system. That just made no sense -- it was just an opportunity to introduce errors, and that's where you got hung up by these latency issues.

Remember, real time to those of us in IT means something very different than real time to your typical chief operating officer. The COO doesn't care how many computer cycles it take before data is up to date. From a business perspective, we need it real time enough. The real important consideration is not that its real time, but that its deeply embedded in how you work naturally.

Both your books talk about bringing the power of information technology to bear on business decisions. Given that many Generation X-ers are coming up the corporate ladder, are business-side executives getting more IT-savvy?

The next generational of corporate leadership has grown up with the personal computer. They've used Excel in an MBA class. They're much more comfortable with data, and analytics and technologies than their predecessors. So they are much more willing to get involved an engaged in those issues as a result.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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