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Would you like to supersize your data? January 7, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Is your organization “data-driven”?  Do you scrutinize your company’s analytics to understand sales, customer behavior, product improvements, or innovation opportunities?  Do you stand firmly behind Peter Drucker’s counsel that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”?

Or are you confused by the term “big data” and wonder just how another database or piece of analytical software could possibly substitute for years of experience?

Either way, you may be right.

Naturally, business is governed by data.  At the simplest, we measure cash, inventory, sales volume, and numbers of customers.  Human intuition and assumptions (and especially memory) are often trumped by basic observations of hard numbers.  You can’t run a business based on feelings.

But on the other end of the spectrum, we have global organizations collecting unimaginable volumes of information, using it to understand the past and predict the future.  We live in a world of immense data gathering and storage capacity.  Whether we are, in fact, any smarter for it is open for debate.

IBM - Big Data Infographic

This HBR article highlights some of the specific ways data is used, and summarizes a few case studies of successful analysis, modeling, and application that led to increased efficiency.  However, the last two pages highlight what I believe are the most important aspects: the leadership challenges associated with using big data.  Another article paints a clearer picture of these challenges and quotes Thomas H. Davenport’s big questions when faced with a decision based on a data set beyond the bounds of human comprehension:

What data do you need?

Where does it come from?

What are the assumptions behind the model?

How is the model different from reality?

We’ve all heard the phrase Garbage In-Garbage Out.  This doesn’t apply just to the data, however.  It also includes the assumptions and structure of the model – the human construct is, by definition, only an approximation.  If we feed good data into a bad model, the results can be just as disastrous.

It’s tempting to buy into a system designed to boost your business, operations, or product development.  In fact, as the above figure shows, at least in the UK, big data focuses on customer-centric outcomes – in other words, things to improve the customer experience, attract buyers, or otherwise interact with the client base.  And for large companies that can improve on the margin over a large pool of customers, the law of averages says that big data may very well be a good enough approximation.

If, on the other hand, you run a small business with personal service to individuals, you may very well find yourself on the wrong side of the database.  As we know, humans are much more irrational than we give ourselves credit for.  While a large sample size can indeed yield beneficial predictions, individuals may behave quite differently than the model founded on untested assumptions.

In my consulting practice, we find quite often that companies have much more data gathering capability than they actually use.  Our challenge is to make the best use of the admittedly imperfect data, challenge preconceived assumptions, and then change a culture while at the same time reducing the dependency on inflexible methods.  Data is, then, merely a tool to achieve a needed change, but can in fact be as much a hindrance in the future once the change has taken hold.

This goes to show that the need for big data will be driven as much by the particular needs of your organization at a particular time as by the size of the business and its customer base.  Invest in big data carefully and in line with your corporate strategy rather than promises of improvements that may only be appropriate for a larger firm.

Sun, Sand, and Glass September 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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What will be the next technological revolution?

It’s hard to identify particular divisions of human technology until well after the fact – the Bronze Age, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age.  Until we can see what comes “next” we don’t have a boundary across which we can observe distinct advances.

Nonetheless, we’re always interested in what the ‘next big thing’ will be.  I’ve told my kids that they will be seeing new energy sources and manufacturing techniques – the former driven by our need to shift away from carbon- and combustion-based energy, and the latter taking advantage of recent developments in what is commonly called ‘3-D printing’.

Of course, we can’t know what we’ll have in 30 or 50 years’ time, but here is a taste of a technology that blends the two potential revolutions into one: solar-powered manufacturing using desert sand.  Short of using the ocean as a future fresh water source, this technology just may be one of the ways that developing countries can compete with the rest of the world.  Take a look at this video and see for yourself.  Also visit the Markus Kayser’s website for more info.

P.S. – this video is in desperate need of a soundtrack.  Whether or not you understand German, I found this one goes quite nicely.

Two Flying Cars March 20, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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There is a real-time demonstration going on right now, as two separate companies strive to meld aircraft with road vehicles.  But the demonstration isn’t what you think.  It’s not about their respective projects, but about the companies themselves.

Terrafugia is a relatively well-funded startup that now has a flying prototype under its belt.  The core MIT crew has a wealth of aeronautical design experience, and is actively working with both the FAA and NHTSA to certify the Transition vehicle as being both air- and road-worthy.  They have come a long way, and there is still a long way to go.  But they are very close to having a production vehicle in public use.  Like another similar company, Icon, they are a team of quick-thinkers who have the means to rapidly test and modify the craft as the weight, balance, performance, and features are regularly traded off.  They are a team of true aeronautical entrepreneurs.

Samson Motorworks also has a prototype, just a bit behind Terrafugia’s in terms of both funding and airframe construction.  They have solid computer simulations of airworthiness, but alas, only a road-based prototype for now.  Building a roadable aircraft isn’t easy.

But when we hear about small businesses being job creators, these are the people we’re talking about.  Unfortunately, in the early stages of the game, the jobs themselves are in short supply, and they tend not to be stable.  In order to work for them, one needs to be a self-sufficient entrepreneur – tolerant of risk and uncertainty.  With time, if these designs truly take off, they will become standard outputs of an assembly line somewhere.  In many politicians’ minds, those are the jobs they’re counting on.  Fine jobs, to be sure, but not the same as the original founders and risk-takers.

The adventure wears off, the science gives way to engineers, which gives way to technicians (as Clifford Stoll might say), which gives way to mere advertising.  There is much to be grateful for in security and stability.  But there is a passion and a love of the chase in creating something new.  I hope these valuable people stay in the game and continue the pursuit of the unusual and the untried.  Not for jobs, but for the love of discovery.

Small-Scale Wind Power November 17, 2011

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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As with so many locations around the world, Montana’s wind attracts energy producers and investors eager to prove the feasibility of large “wind farms” and provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. With most of the eastern plains seeing average wind speeds from 14 to 20 mph, there is great potential for success. Ironically however, some of the highest winds, such as those often found in Montana, (more…)

Marketing, Really? February 3, 2010

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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A short time ago, I posted a question to LinkedIn.  I thought I was being clear, but perhaps there was some room for mis-interpretation.  Nevertheless, I’m always happy to clarify and get more specific than is sometimes possible in a one-shot question.  What I was not prepared for was the stack of marketing spam.

Coincidentally, I posted two questions at about the same time.  One has garnered zero responses in 22 hours (not too surprising) while the other has attracted five in half that time (one of which I had to report as blatant abuse of the TOS).

I hypothesize that the second one was like honey to ants.  It had all kinds of keywords that the trolls look for: social, marketing, media – and was categorized in the “internet marketing” box.  So far, no surprises.

What really got my attention was that these people who were “selling” or at least strongly suggesting that I use their services had absolutely no idea who I was, who my own market was, or why I would even be interested in them at all.  Really?  You’re selling MARKETING SERVICES!  If you can’t take five minutes to research a prospect, why in the world would I pay you money to do research for mine?

Here is some friendly advice: If you are going to the trouble of answering questions on LinkedIn, at least show some effort.  I don’t even care if it’s a one line response, but at least make it pertinent to the discussion.  Marketing spam merely highlights how poorly you are able to listen, clutters up an otherwise useful conversation, and isn’t really helping your business.  It certainly isn’t helping others to educate themselves.

Technological Change August 31, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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I previously wrote about SWOT analysis, the examination of a firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A unique aspect of such an examination is the insight that is gained regarding the firm’s perspective on various issues. Of these, one of the most challenging is the categorization of technological change. (more…)