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1/13/2003
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Soccer, Shrimp, and Business Intelligence

When business intelligence is more of an illusion than reality, Paul Grill reveals ways that managers can achieve tangible results.

I've coached soccer for many years, but my most enjoyable and challenging experiences have been with the under 6 age group. This is truly soccer on a mini scale--small field, tiny goals, 4 players on each side, and a 15-minute game (7.5 minutes each half). It makes sense for the 4- and 5-year-olds who play the game, because they are small, too, and usually have an attention span far shorter than the length of the game. You would think that with only having 4 players at a time to manage during the game, and being allowed to actually be on the field with them, the coach would have a pretty easy job, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I've witnessed one fellow coach concede the game after 10 minutes, when the kids decided they would rather be eating the after-game snacks than playing any more. Another coach gave up the game after one of his players picked up the ball and ran off with it, and the combined efforts of both parents and the coach couldn't get it back from him. I've also had many trying moments of my own, but the one that sticks in my mind the most is the story of Sean.

Sean was a small 4-year-old with straight black hair and round glasses that made him look a little like Harry Potter. He was easily distracted and found it hard to pay attention to the game for more than about 30 seconds at a time. He would often run up to me in the middle of the game and say, "Coach, can I go and tell my Dad something?" Whether I answered "yes" or "no," he would run off the field to his Dad, who would send him right back on again!

In the middle of one game, where I had put Sean as a defender, I turned around and was shocked to see him sitting cross-legged in the back of our goal. I quickly ran over to him and asked him what he was doing. He looked up at me and said quite clearly, "This is my tent and I'm not coming out." I was stunned.

Coach Grill with The Tigers, strategizing their next move.

Coach Grill with The Tigers, strategizing their next move.
"But Sean," I responded, "if you don't come out, you can't play in the game and our team might lose. This isn't a tent, it's the goal!" This had absolutely no effect, so in desperation, I tried a different approach. "Sean, this is your tent and you have to protect it. You must stop the other kids from kicking the big ball into it, so you need to be out there ready to kick that ball away and defend your tent."

It worked! He could relate to this. He got out of that goal and defended with a determination and purpose I had never seen in him before.

When I talk to people in different businesses and institutions about business intelligence, I often feel like a soccer coach. I try to coach executives, managers, and individual contributors how they can make use of their data to improve productivity, reduce costs, increase profitability, and generally how to score goals for their business.

While many become enthused, and apply what they learn to great effect, invariably I will encounter a number of people who I can only describe as Sean's. They hear the message, but they're too distracted with all their other activities, and sometimes other technologies, to clearly understand and, therefore, pursue business intelligence to any useful or meaningful end. Unfortunately, like Sean, they still believe they are in the business-intelligence game, but in reality they're in a different game altogether. This illusion is far worse than knowingly rejecting business intelligence, because they believe that what they are doing is business intelligence when it's nothing of the sort.

Just like with Sean in the back of the goal, when I try to explain to these individuals that what they're doing isn't business intelligence, it usually has little effect. The only way to get their attention is to take what they're doing and try to turn their illusional activity into real business intelligence.

A recent example that came to me, courtesy of the IT director of a supermarket chain, demonstrates this point well. For a long time the marketing department had been running and analyzing periodic promotions of shrimp at their stores. The analysis showed modest overall sales increases during the promotions. Recently, the IT director persuaded the marketing department to use a real business-intelligence solution to do the analysis of the last shrimp promotion. By using the OLAP capability of a powerful business-intelligence tool against the collected data from the promotion, they discovered that one individual store sold four times more shrimp than any of the other stores during the promotion. When the marketing department called the manager of that store, and asked him why the promotion had been so successful at his store, he explained that he had set up the display with the shrimp on ice right at the front of the store. The marketing department took this information and instructed all the stores to do the same thing at the next shrimp promotion. The results were a staggering 300% increase in sales over the last shrimp promotion.

When the business case is this simple and clear, it's easy to understand the benefits of participating in the business-intelligence game. The marketing department at the supermarket chain thought the shrimp promotion "analysis" they were already doing was business intelligence, but it wasn't. By applying real business intelligence to the same case, they now understood. They're now true participants of real business intelligence, as Sean is a true participant of soccer, even if he does still think his goal is a tent!

Paul Grill is president and CEO of InfoSol, an information systems solutions company established in 1997, focusing primarily on business-intelligence solutions. He started his career in computers 25 years ago with Honeywell Information Systems in the United Kingdom. He works and resides in Cave Creek, Ariz.


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