It’s always the fault of the tool – A rant

Imagine the following fictional situation:

James Bond: “I am really sorry, M. But I won’t be able to chase down Dr. Evil. The Aston Martin you gave me is at least 12 months old and it doesn’t have the latest DK-B765 features from section Q. I really need another vehicle in order to get my job done.”

M: “007, get your act together! We have provided you with more tools than anybody else here at MI-6.”

James Bond: “Sorry, Sir. But I have tried the old Aston and found that I cannot do certain things I dream about. Also, the ride is quite different from my prior car. The vehicle is clearly holding me back.”

M: “When I look at your records, I can see that you completed your last mission with a car from 1978. It doesn’t make sense.”

James Bond: “Sir, with all respect: I know that car really well. Sure it’s slow and doesn’t have the latest gadgets but it has served me well.”

M: “007, I am about to send you off to the South Pole to search for the ozone layer. When is the last time you have taken time to learn how the Aston Martin works? I can see that you spend a lot of time fixing that white vehicle from 1978 . Also, your records indicate that you haven’t attended any of the advanced ‘reckless spy driving classes’ we offered last month. And let me ask you a question: Have you even taken the Aston out on the track to practice? Huh?”

James Bond: “Errr….I was too busy. Plus it doesn’t make sense to pick up new skills until I have that new ride. I promise you, the world will be a safe place once you give me the gadgets that I really want. Big agent promise! It’s all about the gadgets.”

M: “007 – get your winter jacket and interview some penguins!!!”


It’s too easy to make excuses and to blame our software tools for not helping us. It’s always the fault of the tool. But truth of the matter is that most software platforms offer more functionality anyone could ever use. But not nearly enough people take responsibility and actually learn what the tools can do for them today. Learning requires effort. But it pays off.

2012 is almost around the corner. Many people start making goals for the new year. When is the last time you have:

  • Planning softwareInvested time to learn your business analytics platform?
  • Played with your software and tried a few new techniques?
  • Attend a class about analytics?
  • Read a book about analytics?
  • Learned about charting techniques?
  • Met with other users to exchange knowledge?
  • Thought about the information you really need to make good business decisions?
  • Looked at your data from different angles?
Analytics Reading

An interesting insight from Daniel Goleman’s new ebook


Yesterday, I traveled from Munich to Ottawa. Perfect time to get some reading done. Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the famous book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ recently published a quick follow up on his ubiquitous book. It is called The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and you can buy it on on for your Kindle.


There is an interesting chapter in the book. Goleman talks about the role of self-awareness in decision making. Research found that you need excellent self-awareness to make good decisions. He describes the story of a highly intelligent lawyer who underwent surgery to get a tumor removed from his brain. Unfortunately, the part of his brain that helps with self-awareness got damaged. Despite an excellent recovery, the person ended up not being able to make any decisions anymore. His intelligence was still intact. Even small decisions like: “When should I meet with my Dr” were big hurdles for the poor guy. Goleman writes: “….in order to make a good decision, we need to have feelings about our thoughts.” Data and information alone therefore do not necessarily guarantee good decisions. The human factor is still there.

Goleman describes a study of highly successful entrepreneurs. They were asked how they make decisions. Goleman found that there is a common theme:

“First, they were voracious consumers of any data or information that might bear on their decision, casting a wide net.  But second, they all tested their rational decision against their gut feeling – if a deal didn’t feel right they might not go ahead, even if it looked good on paper.”


Indeed, Business Analytics play an important part in decision making. The technology and processes deliver the raw materials for these ‘voracious consumers of data’. As a matter of fact, one could argue that business analytics enable people to become ‘voracious information consumers‘. Without the data and information, it becomes difficult to make good decisions.

While this sounds so obvious, it is important to keep in mind when it comes to building a business case, for example. Maybe you can use this small insight for your next meeting. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a similar story: Creativity and Innovation. Analytics are indeed an important enabler.


Before I forget, Daniel Goleman’s book is a great read. Lot’s of interesting insights and plenty of remarkable studies. I highly recommend it!




The power of analytics – lessons from a world-class coach

Christoph Papenfuss
Cycling is a tough sport

Cycling Power Meter

A few months ago, I wrote about my personal use of analytics to improve cycling performance. This post continues to be quite popular. There are indeed a lot of parallels between the use of analytics in sports and in business. So, I thought why not learn a few things from one of the leading experts in this area? Why not learn from somebody who is driving the use of analytics in sports? Why not listen to the person who has developed one of the first software packages for analyzing cycling and workout data?

Please meet Hunter Allen. He is widely known as one of the top experts in the world in coaching endurance athletes using power meters in combination with powerful analytical software. Hunter and I met almost six years ago. He hosted a cycling camp in Solvang, California. During those seven days out on the road, he taught me a lot about using analytics to improve my cycling performance. And I was lucky to catch Hunter over the phone the other day.

Christoph: You started your career in professional cycling. Professional cycling, like other sports, has a lot of old-fashioned traditions. What led you to take a fresh look at the traditional training methods?
Hunter: Actually one of my coaching clients asked me to train them with a power meter and I figured what the heck, I can do that! He was a VERY early adopter of the technology and that forced me to really learn it and figure out how to understand what it meant from a coaching, sports science and racing perspective.

Cycling Power Meter
High Tech in Sports - A Cycling Power Meter

Christoph: You advocate the use of high-tech training devices like power meters for cycling, GPS and accelerometers for running. These devices record a lot of data about each workout: heart-rate, power output, pace and cadence to just name a few. Why record so much data? Shouldn’t an experienced athlete know how to listen and react to his/ her body?
Hunter: We have to listen to our body, but sometimes our bodies don’t tell the truth or can’t give us enough information to help us make the right decision. For example, this past summer, I was training for the Masters Nationals races and I was in the last two weeks of the hardest part of the training. Normally my Heart Rate would be in the 170-174 range when I am riding at threshold power (equivalent to your highest avg. power you can maintain for an hour), but my cardiovascular system was quite fatigued and I could barely get my heart rate to come over 158bpm. However, my watts were higher than ever and I was doing more work than I had in a long time. Had I been going on heart rate, I would have rested and denied myself optimal training. The more data the better, because it allows us to organize it into useful information from which we can make correct training decisions.

Christoph: Back in 2002 you started developing a popular and sophisticated software package called WKO+ (Workout Plus). It allows athletes to upload the data from their power meters and running watches. What happens with the data in the software?
Hunter: Our Software is no more than a fairly sophisticated program that can take multiple ‘channels’ of data, organize it into charts and graphs which are presented in an easy to understand fashion. One of the keys to this is the ability to chart the data over any time period you want to chart it. So, I can tell if an athlete has improved in their sprint power over the last year, last six months, last month or even week to week. Data is useless until you can intelligently turn it into information and we’ve done that through a visual software package that allows the user incredible flexibility.

Christoph: Can you give us an example of what athletes can learn from the huge amount of data? Can even highly experienced athletes that really know their body well use these insights to their advantage?
Hunter: One of the greatest things that an athlete can learn is their own personal relationship between a ‘training dose’ and their bodies ‘response’ to that training load. Once they know that two weeks of training in the mountains and one week of rest will give them the fitness needed for a race, then they can begin to plan and predict a peak performance. This is the biggest revolution that we have been able to create: Peak performance prediction. If I have enough data from an athlete, I can plan their training nearly perfectly so that on the exact day or week that they want to have the best ride of their life, they will. That’s “powerful”! 😉

Christoph: Athletes often have to make critical decisions about their training schedules, their race tactics and their general behavior out on the road? Does the information provided by your software help athletes make better decisions? If yes, can you provide an example?
Hunter: For sure, this is something that can help them make decisions. Some of the best data is their race data. We can learn if they are pedaling too much for example! It seems counterintuitive, but the best, most winningest road racers often pedal the least in races. Cycling is a sport of energy conservation and the best racers save the most energy and then use it when they need it. Another example could be in a long solo ride, as a rider might use their power meter for pacing their energy output so that they can finish strong.

Analytics in Cycling - Software provides critical insights

Christoph: Athletes often work as a team. The team includes coaches and other athletes. Does your software make a contribution towards better communication and collaboration between these different parties?
Hunter: One of the benefits of using these devices is the added sense of accountability that an athlete has, since they have been given a workout prescription and if they don’t do it, then when they upload their completed training file to me, then I’ll know exactly what they didn’t do. So, it helps the athlete with program adherence and the coach with communication. Without this information, I can only guess if the athlete is training correctly.

Christoph: We see more and more athletes train and race according to your methods. Would you say that training and racing with a power meter can lead to a competitive advantage?
Hunter: It’s a competitive advantage if you learn how to use it properly. Just sticking one of these on your bike isn’t going to make you a faster cyclist. You have to know some of the basic power training principles and then follow them. If you do that, then yes, absolutely it’s an advantage.

Christoph: The world of sports is often characterized by a culture of old traditions. Do you find it hard to promote these new training approaches?
Hunter: I don’t find it hard, because I am by nature a very flexible and open minded person. I am always open to new ideas, thoughts and approaches, but not everyone is. Any change takes time and here we are nine years after our first software version came out and still I am teaching new coaches, new athletes about it. I look forward to learning about the next tech tool that will help my athletes as well!

Thanks for your time, Hunter!

About Hunter Allen:

Hunter AllenHunter Allen’s goal has always been to teach athletes how to maximize their training and racing potential through professional analysis of their power data. Hunter’s power training method has built success at all levels of cycling and endurance sports, training such well known professional & Olympic athletes such as Jeremiah Bishop (Volkswagen-Trek), 2008 US National Champion Mountain Biker, Daniel Lloyd (CerveloTest Team), 2008 Vuelta de Extremadura, Sue Haywood, 2007 World Mountain Bike 24 Champion, Dan Fleeman (CerveloTest Team), 2008 Winner of Tour of Pyrnees and with the 2008 USA Olympic BMX Team. Hunter is himself a former professional cyclist for Team Navigators and has raced for over 17 years in Europe, South America, U.S. and Canada and has over 40 career victories to his credit. Considered a great all-rounder, he was able to learn a wide variety of race tactics and skill necessary to succeed at the professional level.


Lessons from Steve Jobs

Some of you have probably read my review of Steve Jobs’ biography. I really like the book. It is a fantastic read. In the last post, I also promised to distill a few lessons. Well, here they are. A few interesting quotes. Quick and simple.

“Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”, Steve Jobs

People shy aways from using complex and complicated things. Think about Apple’s products – they are simple and easy to use. We do not need a manual to use the iPad, iPhone or iPod. We should all make an effort to simplify our business analytics objects whether they are reports, cubes or planning models. Complexity deters. Simplicity attracts. But achieving simplicity is not all that easy. Keep that in mind. We have to fight for it. We have to be creative to obtain it. But it’s worth the effort.

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”, Steve Jobs

We sometimes feel like juggling everything that is being thrown at us. We accept new requirements without really wondering whether they make sense. But we sometimes have to say “no”. Once again, let’s keep it simple and focus on the big picture. There is no point in trying to satisfy every single business user and process exception.

“Jobs also decided to eliminate the cursor arrow keys on the Macintosh keyboard. The only way to move the cursor was to use the mouse. It was a way of forcing old-fashioned users to adapt to point-and click navigation, even if they didn’t want to.”, Walter Isaacscon

Simplicity and focus should create objects that business users like to use. But we should not try to create too many exceptions and complexities to cater to those people who are skeptical. They will never change. Let’s focus on the essential stuff and people will follow ….. eventually.

Apple - Think Different

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

Jobs pushed his teams to design beautiful products – even under the hood. We should strive to do the same. It pays off. Solid architecture and data models pay off a hundred times. It’s not just about the presentation layer. Poor design will eventually show.

“People who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”, Steve Jobs

We spend way too much time creating PowerPoint presentations. Let’s drop that and invest the time in understanding our business and the associated problems and opportunities. Jobs is right – if you know your stuff, you can white board, you can discuss without the helping hand of a PowerPoint deck.

Last but not least, one of Steve Jobs’ favorite ideas came from Wayne Gretzky:

“Skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.” Wayne Gretzky

Let’s try to figure out how we can push the envelope. Let’s not just focus on the requirements of the users. Instead, let’s figure out how we can surprise them. When is the last time you have surprised them?

It all sounds so simple…right?



Business analytics & the Innovator’s DNA

Chris Barez-Brown, author of "How to have kick-ass ideas"

The other day, I wrote about how Business Analytics can help create innovative businesses. For some reason, the topic kept hovering in my mind and I pulled out an interesting six-year study conducted by INSEAD professor Hal Gregersen, Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Clayton Christensen of Harvard. It is called ‘The Innovator’s DNA’. The authors of the study found that creative and innovative people tend to have five key characteristics. When looking at these characteristics, it seems that Business Analytics can indeed have a very positive impact on each one of these. Let’s take a look:

  • Associating: Creative people are able to connect seemingly unrelated pieces of information. Military camouflage, for example, stems from ideas created by Cubist artists. Business Analytics allows us to analyze data from various different angles. We can compare different aspects of our business, observe trends and create what-if scenarios. Analytics can therefore help us make new associations between different data sets.
  • Observing: Creative entrepreneurs tend to be keen observers. They have a high level of awareness. Business Analytics can help us raise our own level of awareness: we have the ability to stay closely connected with our business. We can observe trends in great detail. We can obtain information without too much difficulties. We find new trends.
  • Experimenting: No big surprise – innovators are good at experimenting. They try out different things. They fail, they succeed. Business Analytics allows us to try out different things. We can ask what-if questions? We can test assumptions. What would be the impact to costs, if I hired new managers in location A instead of location B? What if we shifted production from one plant to another?
  • Networking: Innovators seek interaction with diverse people to further their thinking. They try to discuss problems with different people outside their normal teams. Business Analytics allows us to connect with people across our organization. Using collaboration features we can share insights, seek input and observe what other people are thinking.
  • Questioning: This is a core skill. Creative minds ask lot’s of questions. They don’t just assume. They explore. Business Analytics helps us ask a lot of questions: How are we doing? Why is that so? What should we be doing? What if we increased our travel budget.


Creative Powerhouse: Walt Disney

Don’t get me wrong. Business Analytics is not going to turn all of us into creative powerhouses. Although, it could and should….But if anything, it lowers the barrier towards creative thinking. The worst thing we can do today is to just sit there and work with the same type of information over and over again. It gets worse when people are afraid to look beyond the normal standardized paper reports. A classic case of tunnel vision frequently occurs.


There is a lot of opportunity in the markets today. Actually, much more opportunity than ever before. But global competition forces us to find new and better ways. But to stay competitive and to leverage these opportunities we all need to foster innovation and creativity.

If used right, Business Analytics will make a serious contribution towards success. Try pushing yourself and your users. Also, start considering the above mentioned points in our business case. We sometimes focus on the hard facts such as cost savings. But creativity and innovation can lead to something much bigger. Once again, think about the successful companies out there!

Analytics Reading

How Business Analytics can drive creativity & innovation

Last weekend I was reviewing my recent photography portfolio. I noticed an interesting theme: my favorite photographs seemed to be clustered around certain months. There are a few months when my activity was low and the resulting photos were not that great. That raised an interesting question: Do we get more creative by being more active?


Simply taking more photographs will probably not increase your creativity. But, there seems to be a clear connection between being curious and immersed in a certain field (e.g. photography). Indeed, several creative minds have confirmed this link.

The path towards creativity & innovation

In his excellent eBook “The Inspired Eye” Master photographer David duChemin says:

“Creative people are raw material gatherers, they hunger for ideas and go outside of the camp to find them. You must increase your inputs, the more ideas and influences you ingest, the more your creative being has to work with – the more Lego blocks your inner creative has to work with.”

In other words, the more we experience, the more interesting things we see, the more we try new things, the higher our creativity will most likely be. That explains why me taking more photographs, me being engaged in the process probably led to better results.


How does this relate to business? Let’s look at Steve Jobs. Most of us admire Apple for for it’s enormous amount of creativity. In his book ‘The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs’, Carmine Gallo looks at several factors that are responsible for Apple’s tremendous success at delivering innovation. Turns out that Steve Jobs and his team are indeed fueling their brains with multiple experiences. They hire diverse people with different backgrounds. They study the designs of ‘boring’ products such as rice cookers, blenders, cars. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy during his student days which ultimately resulted in Apple’s huge focus on beautiful design. To back up how and why this results in higher creativity, Gallo quotes neuroscientist Gregory Berns:

“To see things differently than other people, the most effective solution is to bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before. Novelty releases the perceptual process from the shackles of past experiences and forces the brain to make new judgements.” 


If you think about it, Business Analytics is an ideal platform for driving creativity and innovation. The technology allows us to to effectively ‘bombard their brains with new things’:

  • We are able to explore and to relate
  • We are able to slice and dice
  • We are able to drill-down
  • We are able to quickly identify and analyze trends
  • We can create what-if scenarios on the fly
  • We can probe, we can test
Business Analytics - the better approach

Do you see the connection? But not only that – Business Analytics software also lowers the barrier towards asking new & different questions. The ability to view data from different angles, to ability to associate new sets of data has the potential to create new insights. People are no longer afraid to analyze their business from a different perspective: they don’t have to wait and they don’t have to go through a complicated process to obtain the data.

In her excellent article “Data dive reveals and ocean of trends’, Lynn Greiner states:

“BI software gives you the ability to dive into data and find trends and relationships you may not have considered, or to find the cause of anomalies you’ve noticed.”

Keep this in mind!  Business Analytics can make a big contribution towards higher creativity. Just take a look at some of the really successful companies these days…chances are they are very analytical! What are your thoughts and experiences?

Analytics Visualization

Visual Analytics – The new frontier? (Guest Post)


Massive sets of data are collected and stored in many areas today. As the volumes of data available to business people or scientists increase, it becomes harder and harder to use the data effectively. Keeping up to date with the flood of data using standard tools for data management and analysis is far from easy. The field of visual analytics tries to provide people with better and more effective ways to understand and analyze these massive data sets, while helping them to follow up on their findings immediately, in real-time. Visual analytics integrates the analytic capabilities of the computer and the abilities of the human. This means, the human is empowered to take control of the analytical process; he or she is not just the final stage of a reporting process. Visual analytics sheds light on unexpected and hidden insights, which may lead to innovation and increase profits. For example, many key performance indicators are simply calculated using statistical models. But the true relations between data, models and business objectives often remain unclear. If visualization is included as an integral part of the analysis process then comprehension of the models as well as of the data is increased. Errors in the basic assumptions of the models can be recognized early on and newly discovered dependencies in the data can lead to new and possibly better reporting indices.



The 2011 edition of the Tour de France is in its final week. No matter if you are a cycling fan or not, Le Tour continues to fascinate millions of people around the globe. Few people appreciate that it is actually one of the three largest sporting events in the world (behind the Olympics and the football world cup). Fewer people know why we get to watch this interesting show every year.


The new K.O. criteria for jobs?

To be honest with you, I am still a bit puzzled. But it totally makes sense. Over the past 9 weeks, I ran into three different people that I had met through my work at IBM. They all had three things in common:

  • They used to be a Business Analytics advocate and driver at a customer
  • They left that job to pursue another opportunity with a new company
  • They hate their new jobs and are looking for a new role
Reading Visualization

What “Brain Rules” teaches us about Business Analytics

The other day I took some time to review a few chapters of John Medina’s excellent book ‘Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School‘. It is a great read. There are a lot of interesting stories and insights that apply to various different aspects of our lives. One chapter in particular is quite relevant for Business Analytics: Rule #10 – Vision trumps all other senses.


Dashboard DesignAccording to Medina, our brains devote over half of their resources to vision. The nerves between our eyes and our brains are much more powerful than those of our other senses. As a result, pictures allow us to absorb information much quicker and the information also tends to be stickier in our brains. Medina says:”Put simply, the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled”.


Text on the other hand is very inefficient. It takes us longer to recognize information and we are likely to retain less of it. Medina states that each letter is technically a separate picture. When we see words we see tons of little images and our brains have a harder time to process the information. George Bernhard Shaw once said “Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap.”


Brain Rules
A picture says more than a thousand words

Most of this is common sense, but many of us still choose to ignore these facts. We create long reports with hundreds of columns and numbers. We spend hours analyzing these numbers. And we have a hard time recognizing the important patterns. If we want to follow Medina’s advice, we should visualize our data, instead. This not only speeds up our ability to recognize patterns and dependencies, but it should also help us with retaining the information. The old saying goes “A picture says more than a thousand words”, right?


Dashboarding guru Stephen Few created a nice little experiment that shows how true and important this insight is. Take a look at the simple report below. It shows revenue numbers for two regions. Spend about 30 seconds to study the table. Then look away ask yourself what you saw.

What do you see here?

Most people are only able to recall three to four different things from the table. The bigger picture usually remains hidden for a while. Now, take a look at the chart below. This is the same data. What do you see now?

Same information...

Notice the difference? The chart is a lot easier to read and chances are that you are able to retain a lot more information.


John Medina’s advice can be extremely valuable for all of us. We should strive to move away from pure number and text based reports. Instead we should visualize as much data as possible. But that requires us to spend some time to learn more about charting techniques. There are a lot of different options and not all of them are appropriate for any given set of data. You can find a bunch of valuable tips on this blog to get started. Also, utilize the appropriate Business Analytics platform. Cognos 10 offers over 160 differrent chart types, for example.

So, toss those tables and go visual. Inspect your current repository of reports and think about how you can improve in this area.

Listen to John Medina:

Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effect of images.”