Inspiration from Stephen Few

Greetings from San Francisco. I am back here to attend Osisoft’s vCampus developer conference. The conference kicked off with a true highlight: Stephen Few delivered one of the keynote presentations. Hopefully, all of you know Stephen and the awesome work he has done over the past years. Today’s presentation was content-rich and also very entertaining. There were a lot of smiling faces in the audience. I will write up a short summary of his messages over the weekend and share it on this blog.

Is this the information age?

Stephen Few started his presentation with a strong statement: We do not live in the information age…..yet. Instead, many of us are drowning in data and we struggle with making sense of the data. Part of the issue is that we are lacking ‘data-sensemaking’ skills. To highlight this point, Stephen Few showed a video. I had never seen it before. It’s funny but there is a strong message behind it: we do not understand how to deliver information properly.

Those concentric circles

Does your organization have a ‘concentric circle’ problem? I certainly know a lot of them. It’s time to change that. Take some time to evaluate whether your reports and dashboards are able to deliver real information.

Concentric circles
“Concentric circles” in the corporate world

 

Check back here in the next few days for a summary of Stephen Few’s presentation.

Recommended reading: How to convert complex data into a story

The Analytics Communicator

Analytics professionals need to be communicators. Just being technically proficient is longer enough. It is not enough to slap a report or dashboard together on the go. Rather, we have the responsibility to help the business get information out of their data. This is especially true as data volumes continue to grow.  I wrote about this in a recent blog post.

The question though is how to best do this. Earlier this week, I came across an excellent blog post by web analytics guru Avinash Kaushik. His November 5th post provides a detailed example of how to convert a complex data set into a compelling story. I highly encourage you to spend some time reading this inspiring blog post.

 

Avinash Kaushik

 

 

Three simple ideas for better software demos

Better software demos

The other day I wrote about lessons for delivering a better software demo. This article ended up being one of the most popular ones in recent times. I have therefore decided to add a few more tips as a solid demo can really make a difference. Likewise a bad software demo can really hurt you and your project. Remember – the first impression is usually the most important one. You therefore have to make sure that you do a great job.

1. Keep it clean

A few weeks ago, I watched a demo. It wasn’t that bad. However, the guy ran it of his own desktop. And what a messy desktop it was. Icons cluttered a photo of him floating in a swimming pool. Oh well. Various apps were open and the person delivering the demo often had a hard time finding the right window. Also, his email program was open. The little Outlook bubbles kept popping up and we could read some of the email subjects (Viagra for sale!). Too bad! This could have been a good demo but the overall impression was anything but positive. You wouldn’t want to sell a dirty car, would you? Before you head out to deliver your next demo make sure to do the following:

    • messy desktop
      Does this look good enough for a customer?

      Close all apps that you don’t need

    • Kill all incoming emails, instant messages or Skype calls
    • Clean up your desktop
    • Choose a professional desktop background (the group photo from your bachelor party is probably not the right choice…)
    • Even easier: run the demo from a clean virtual machine

2. Keep it relevant

Demos need to be short and sweet. Don’t waste time explaining useless stuff. Imagine the car sales person talking about the spare wheel. Not all that exciting, is it? Spending time on irrelevant features can seriously harm you and your message. People might leave thinking your solution is not capable. You won’t believe it – but it’s true. I recently witnessed a person spending 2 minutes showing the audience how to change a password. It was irrelevant and painful to watch (message received: we have basic security). You have to make sure that what you show resonates with your audience and that it has impact. When you prepare for your demo, ask yourself the following questions:

    • What is the business pain of my audience?
    • Which features solve that pain?
    • Does that feature look great on screen?
    • Is it easy to understand?
    • Is this something interesting?

3. Fast forward

Have I mentioned that demos ought to be short and sweet? There are times, though, when it’s hard to stick to that idea. There are processes that may have to run, we might have to complete various ‘boring steps’ etc.. Don’t torture your audience with running through the entire process. It is so easy to loose people’s attention today. A good demo is like a river: It keeps flowing. Consider one of the following alternatives:

better software demo

  • Record the entire demo or parts of it. Recording the entire script allows you to edit out irrelevant steps. You can also enhance a live demo with some video to show those steps in a quick manner (kind of like a timelapse effect).
  • Prepare the irrelevant and lengthy steps before the actual demo. This is possible in many case.
  • Only show the relevant fragments. We don’t always have to show it all. A simple before and after often speaks louder than hundreds of demo minutes
  • Team up with a colleague. Show some slides during the ‘boring’ parts while your colleague advances the demo

Better software demos

Delivering better software demos does not have to be difficult. Follow some of these ideas to improve. It’s worth it. The greatest dashboard will have a hard time getting accepted if the demos really suck.

Good luck!

Analytics professionals need to be communicators

Are we communicators?

Analyics are an extremely hot topic. While there is a lot of talk about it, too many companies are still failing to reap the true benefits from “bread and butter” tools such as dashboards. It’s safe to say that there is a disconnect: lot’s of talk and excitement, yet little true engagement on the business side. What’s causing the problem? It’s tempting to blame the technology.

The Disconnect

Having worked with many organizations over the past decade, I have come to the conclusion that a majority of the problems are caused by needless complexity and by a maddening drive towards technical excellence. Let’s face it – an analytics solution is only as good as the adoption by the user community. Brilliant technology fails when people don’t know what to do with it. How can we fix this? I think we – the analytics professionals – need to look at ourselves and make some changes to the way we work and engage with the business community. It’s easy and comfortable to stay in a comfortable cocoon of technical talk and optimization. Our objective needs to be to step out of that cocoon and start communicating with the business.

The Communicator

Last weekend, I started reading an excellent book by Tim Elmore. The book is about communication. Tim makes the case that our society requires a different communication approach. In the past, we adored the great orators that would read a carefully scripted speech. Today, we relate to people who deliver messages that connect with us. The author drafts up a comparison between the past and today: public speakers (aka technical experts) vs communicators. When I studied this, it struck me: The content applies to our business analytics profession as well. I have taken the liberty to modify it a bit. Take a few minutes to study the table and to reflect how this might apply to your and your team:

Analytics Professional
Are you a technical professional or a communicator?

Need to change

Let me tell you, this comparison really spoke to me. As analytics professionals, we need to make a serious effort to connect with our audience – the business. That requires us to leave the comfortable cocoon of technical talk. Here is an example: the classic requirements gathering. We interview, we document, we ask for sign-offs. The whole process is technical and it usually doesn’t help the business. It’s a process that was designed to help and protect the IT professional. A communicator on the other hand goes further than just creating a thick document. The communicator goes out of his way to really understand the business. That might require a simple prototype. It might require us to take a personal risk and ask more questions.The end result is a better analytics solution.

Here is a suggestion: Print out this table and take a look at it before you head into that next meeting or before you hand over that new dashboard. Think about your team. Are you a an analytics professional or an analytics communicator?

P.S.: I highly recommend reading Tim Elmore’s book. It’s an excellent read. There are  a ton of exercises and self-assessments that help you improve your personal presentation and communication style. I have read many books about presenting and this is belongs in the category of books that can really have an impact.

The art of the technical presentation – 5 lessons from Gary Fong

The Technical presentation

As an analytics professional, you often have to show your work to select audiences. This could be a demonstration of a new corporate dashboard at the monthly townhall meeting. It might also be a training class for the operations team or a 1:1 session with the CEO. Regardless of the occasion, you have to make sure that your technical presentation gets the audience excited about your analytics solution. Unfortunately, too many technical presentations go bad. It’s really easy to loose the attention of your audience, if you don’t prepare carefully. The other day I watched a superb technical demo by the famous entrepreneur and photographer Gary Fong. It exhibits a lot of characteristics that you and I should incorporate in our next technical presentation.

The Gary Fong Factor

Take a look at the short video. Gary Fong demonstrates one of his new photo products. Even if you don’t know anything about photography, you will immediately get the idea of his product. Just watch 1-2 minutes.

5 lessons

What’s so special about Gary’s demo. It exhibits a lot of qualities you and I need to incorporate in every technical presentation:

  1. Be enthusiastic: Gary is extremely enthusiastic about his products and it shows. Enthusiasm is contagious. Most photographers want to buy his products after watching one of his demos. However, too many technical presentations are just plain boring. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience: why should you use that analytics solution if your technical leader isn’t excited about it? Show your passion!
  2. Avoid technical language: Notice how simple this short demo is. There are no buzzwords, there is hardly any jargon. Even non-photographers understand his product. Jargon and buzzwords are an excellent way to confuse people. It probably scares the CFO to hear about the configuration of the ODBC connection. Neither does he care about the latest in-memory technology. Make it easy for people to follow you!
  3. Explain the problem: When you deliver a technical presentation, it is critical to explain your audience why they need to change. People don’t like to change. Don’t just jump in and show your shiny technology. Set the background and explain what the problem is that you are trying to combat. Gary does that marvelously. He clearly shows that the current state (i.e. without his products) is problematic. Try to do the same in your next technical presentation.
  4. Show the benefits: Gary doesn’t stop right there. He goes further and stops at certain points to show the benefits of the new approach. He compares the old with the new. He leaves no doubt that the change is worth the effort. This helps the audience make up their mind. Too many demos leave it to the audience to identify the benefits. That’s a risky strategy.
  5. Be quick: Demos are often long and boring. Gary Fong, on the other hand, is quick. He jumps right in and he uses engaging language. There are no slow or boring parts. This is actually one of his longer demos. Most of his video demos run less than 2-3 minutes. This pays off tremendously – you won’t loose your audience.

Practice your technical presentation

Delivering an awesome technical presentation can be extremely rewarding – not only for yourself but also for your audience. Technical excellence of a solution does not automatically translate into enthusiasm by the end users. You have to help them with accepting the new solution. Spend some time to learn and practice these lessons.

If you are interested in this topic, check out one of my earlier posts.

Guest Post: Become the topic of conversation with content marketing

PR and Social Media Expert Bernhard Lermann

Content Marketing

If Dr. Johann August Unzer would have had a company website, it would have been a very lively place. The practicing physician from Altona, Germany, was the publisher of the well-known medical weekly journal “Der Arzt” („The Physician”) as well as the author of numerous medical, philosophical and early psychological essays. His home was a central point for society in Altona. On the painting of Johann Jacob Tischbein, which caught my attention during a visit at the  German Museum of Medical History in Ingolstadt, he portrayed himself as a well-connected, scholarly medical scientist and author. He is surrounded by letters from colleagues and his hand rests on his best-seller: “Der Arzt” (“The Physician”), published 1759 to 1764 also as a set of 12 books.

Dr. Johann August Unzer, physician and networker

Unzer dedicated himself to topics that were discussed intensively in the medical world of the 18th century. He wrote for example “De sternutatione”, a discussion about sneezing. And he wrote down his “Gedancken vom Einfluß der Seele in ihren Körper” (“Thoughts on the influence of the soul on its body”). Burning questions that wanted to be answered.

Since the invention of a search engine, however, one must no longer consult experts nor call nor mail a letter in order to find answers; the answer appears on the computer screen within milliseconds – delivery free of charge.

Google prefers high-quality content

Sophisticated content marketing for companies utilizes the new possibilities of searching for answers. A company website is no longer optimized towards products but rather towards topics. One of the reasons for this is that Google prefers “high-quality” content that supplies answers and currently neglects outdated methods like keyword frequency.

But the one-time creation of content is not enough. The up-to-datedness of content is important; users and search engines prefer fresh content, whether that’s text, images, informative graphics, or video clips. An interaction with a graphically pleasing interface will, for example, offer easy entry into a topic, which is particularly recommended for complex matters and generates a long user session.

Know-how generates topics

If one focuses on the customer‘s needs, the customer’s trust in that brand increases immensely, which will automatically result in higher sales volumes. Schwarzkopf’s story of success is often told: the internal website was completely revamped, and since early 2011 presents itself like a thematic portal in the style of Vogue or Madame. Complete with topics regarding hair – and since then with fantastic hit-rates.

The engineering blogs of Indium, a developer and producer of special alloys for component production show how to create high-quality content in the B2B segment. Indium recognized that company’s content capital is made up of the Know-How of its staff and its network.

In order to create high-quality content it is necessary for marketing, PR, and distribution to work together on a daily basis. Distribution staffs are familiar with their customer’s needs, the PR department develops topics in alignment with these needs, and marketing prepares the content according to the various formats and knows the best distribution channels.

Once content is placed, it works “round the clock“, on the web

Many companies balk at the high expenditure of time for the production of content. It’s not for impatient people: such measures don’t have immediate effects but they improve the reputation of the company bit by bit. However, since content works round the clock for the company once its placed, success can be seen faster and is effective for a much longer time than in printed customer magazines, for example.

For as long as he was alive, Dr. Johann August Unzer refused offers to teach as a professor in Copenhagen or Goettingen. His publications were highly recognized and solidified his reputation as an expert in his field. He surely had enough well-paying patients.

In this context, content marketing is nothing new. For a company it is today much easier to connect with its target group. Once upon a time one placed its message exclusively into commercial breaks, which interrupted customer discussions, but today it’s possible to participate in the discussion. Once this is understood, one can use content marketing to provide suggestions regarding the direction into which the discussion may go.

Bernhard Lermann supports customers from the semiconductor, industrial electronics, logistics and IT industries and small to medium size businesses for Lermann Public Relations. He designs story lines for content marketing strategies and for company videos and regularly writes specialized contributions for companies from his core segments.

6 Performance Management lessons from the Tour de France

The Tour de France

The toughest sporting event of the year is in full swing right now. No, I am not talking about the Olympics. I am talking about the Tour de France. No other sport requires its athletes to perform at the highest level for 21 consecutive days. Think about this: Riders burn an average of 4000 calories per day. To win this unique competition you need to do everything right and you need to have a bit of luck as well.  It is therefore not surprising that top athletes leverage smart technology to help them. As a matter of fact, most top cyclists leverage so-called power-meters to collect and analyze ride data. Think of it as business analytics on a bike. And guess what – the athletes & their coaches do it really well. Here are a few simple lessons that we can learn from the pros:

  1. Pick a balanced set of metrics: Improving your performance requires you to look at various measures. Cyclists, for example, look at things like cadence, power output, heart rate etc.. Each one of these metrics influences performance. It’s the combination of them that allows riders to make sound decisions about their training programs and racing strategies. Do you have the right mix of metrics that allows you and your team to perform well? Managing sales is much more effective by looking at metrics such as # of new customers, avg $ per sales order etc.. Just looking at revenue alone creates a limited view.
  2. Monitor the relevant metrics:It’s nice to have a lot of metrics to work with. But make sure to pick the ones that are actually relevant to your business. Cyclists for example are ultimately looking to increase their speed. However, speed is very hard to control. It’s heavily dependent on outside variables such as wind, terrain, tire friction etc.. Monitoring speed on a continuous basis is therefore no recipe for improvement. As a matter of fact, it would be a counter-productive exercise (think about a day with lot’s of tail-wind). Cyclists therefore focus on the above mentioned metrics. They have direct control over these and improving them will lead to higher average speed. What about your metrics? Are you monitoring the relevant ones? Managing the marketing department with revenue metrics alone is not that effective, for example. You’d rather leverage metrics such as # of leads generated, brand equity etc.. Those metrics are in direct control and they influence the overall goal of increasing revenue.

    Golden Cheetah
    Meaningful metrics create powerful insights
  3. Consider relative measures: Power output (watt) is a key metric in cycling. The higher the power output one can produce, the better. But watts by themselves do not allow you to compare progress over time. Let’s say I am able to produce 300w over one hour today. Last year, I was able to produce only 280w. Have I improved? Will I be able to ride up that hill faster? It depends. We would have to look at my weight. The heavier I am, the more power I need to maintain a certain speed. And that’s why cyclists closely watch relative metrics. Watts/kg is one of the key metrics. It allows them to compare themselves with other riders and they can carefully track their progress. Are you looking at some relative metrics? Think about marketing, for example. We could be tempted to simply look at the number of leads that a certain campaign has generated. Sure, that is an important metric. But we should also look at the cost per lead. That allows us to compare different campaigns.
  4. Leverage data:It’s nice to have a ton of data available. But it’s only useful if we turn that data into information through analysis. Leading coaches and riders spend a lot of time analyzing ride data. They look for insights and they use these insights to refine their program. Businesses have a wealth of data available. Unfortunately, not all of it is used appropriately. I recently met a company that has terabytes of clean customer data sitting in their databases. None of it is being used right now. Such a shame. It happens way too often.

    Tracking and predicting performance
  5. Merge information with intuition: Data is great and data (hardly ever) lies. Yet, it is critical to listen to your inner voice as well. The best cyclists in the world leverage all their analytical insights and merge them with their intimate knowledge of their own body. They intuitively know when they can attack. It’s the same in business. That NPV model might look great on paper, but our gut tells us that the investment is wrong. Let’s not forget that!
  6. Change that plan: Athletes spend a ton of time planning their training schedules. They use scientific methods to predict their peak performance. But no plan is fool-prove. Things are likely to change. Top pros therefore adjust their schedule on a rolling basis. There are days when they simply can’t pull off a hard interval session. Sure, they could try to do it. But that could have a devastating effect on their engine (body). Likewise, there are also days when their body feels surprisingly fresh. In those cases they increase their training load. Too many businesses create plans and stick with them regardless of what is happening around them. That is not only risky but it also often prevents companies from outperforming (think about all those expense budgets that are rigorously spent each year…).

The Tour de France by numbers

Take a look at these lessons and see how you could apply these to your business. Granted, cycling is a simple sport. But they face a ton of pressure. The best riders are separated by a mere 1-2% in overall performance. 2011 research by the CFO Executive board has shown that CFOs believe their finance departments perform 30% below their performance potential. What does that tell you?

P.S.: If you like sports and analytics, make sure to follow the daily coverage of Trainingpeaks.com. They feature detailed ride analysis and such. There is some fascinating stuff.

Is it worth going the extra mile?

That last bit of effort

Most of us have encountered many situations where we need to make a decision: do we want to put in just a little bit more effort or should we just let it go. There is the project proposal that we have been working on for days. Should we do another spell-check, should we have somebody else take another look at it? And there is one of our customers. Should we invite him for a quick cup of coffee despite our busy schedule? There are many situations. Unfortunately, we are often tempted to take the easy route.

A small investment

In many cases, we should make that little bit of extra investment. The potential pay-back is just too big. And it’s usually a relatively tiny investment of our time and effort. I was reminded of that the other day while I was out biking. My house is at 550m altitude (1804 ft). Within a mile there are a bunch of sunflower fields. They are all in full bloom right now. It is gorgeous. There is a town on my cycling route that is just ten miles away. It’s located at 590m (1935ft) altitude. The fields were completely green this past Sunday. Not a single yellow sunflower bloom. A minor difference in temperatures due to the proximity to the Alps and the altitude. (This town actually has more snow in winter than we do).

Sunflowe

Not going the extra mile has inherent risks. I flew back from a conference a few weeks ago and wasn’t feeling well. The staff on the flight seemed to be a bit off as well. Dealing with an arrogant and unfriendly staff was the last thing that I needed. Was it really that difficult for them to bring me a second cup of coffee? Was it that hard to greet me with a smile? Was it that difficult to apologize for the water they spilled on me? I doubt it. What could have been a nice experience (I was upgraded) turned out to be a real mood spoiler. I have booked several upcoming trips on other airlines since that experience.

Make the effort

Going the extra mile does pay off in many cases. The required effort is usually small. Why don’t we do it more often then?

Updates, updates, updates

Busy times

Wow. It’s been a busy but exciting week. There is a lot going on in the business analytics space these days. Here are some updates that you might find interesting.

Analyticszone.com

  • On Tuesday, IBM launched a revolutionary new solution that combines. IBM Decision Management combines business rules, optimization and predictive analytics to embed intelligence into the fabric of organizations’ decision making. Along with that IBM also launched various new versions of other products like SPSS Modeler, Cognos Express etc.. You can watch a replay of the launch event.

That’s it for today. Short and sweet. Have a great weekend!

TM1 – The swiss army knife for the finance department?

IBM Cognos TM1

No doubt, IBM Cognos TM1 is a unique solution. I have never met so many loyal and enthusiastic long-term customers than for any other finance-related software solution. TM1 is special indeed. There is a lot to like: it is lightening fast (64-bit in memory), configuration does not require rocket-science, it supports Excel, there is a great-looking web interface etc.. But one of the biggest benefits is that TM1 is very flexible. You can do many things with this solution. Usage is not limited to just planning and forecasting. It is not limited to the finance department but it can be leveraged across the enterprise for a plethora of business problems. And that is why many people say that TM1 is as versatile as a Swiss Army Knife.

What can you do?

What can you do with IBM Cognos TM1? A good colleague of mine recently put an interesting slide together. It shows various applications that European customers have built. This is not an exhaustive list but just a snapshot of what is possible.

TM1 Usage

Much more…

Does this inspire you? Find out more about TM1 by reading my interviews with the author of the IBM Cognos TM1 The Official Guide. And if you haven’t bough the book itself, make sure to pick up a copy sooner than later.