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Can Business Analytics Outperform Humans at Multitasking?

by Gary Cokins, Consultant, www.sas.comSunday, January 2, 2011

Science is proving that people underestimate how well they can multitask – doing or thinking about multiple things at the same time. People are actually fairly poor at it. Can analytics-based performance management software accomplish what the human brain cannot? In other words, can the portfolio of integrated methodologies that comprise the performance management framework embedded with business analytics behave like bees of a beehive or ants of an anthill, where each of the workers seems to instantaneously know what they should be doing for the good of their group?

Research by neuroscientists has proven that humans are not very good at doing multiple things at the same time. The research observes that people are weak at doing things simultaneously, such as answering e-mails while talking on the phone. Tasks compete to use the same part of the brain, and attempts to do two or more tasks produce interference. Using brain scan technology, scientists can observe the brain struggling when multitasking is attempted.

What is the value of multitasking with business analytics?

In the context of analytics-based performance management, doing simultaneous things in near-real time is becoming more critical, and it requires speed and accuracy. For example, say a bank customer phones a call center just moments after they purchase a service, but the call center representative has older data that includes an automated rule-based offering. Therefore, the customer service rep may propose the same service, or worse yet a different one – leading to confusion and frustration for the customer.

A mature analytics-based performance management system involves rapid analysis and decision making between multiple business methodologies. There are many things occurring all at once. For example, the executive team may be reacting to external events and consequently adjusting their strategic objectives. Ideally, such changes should be quickly communicated to managers and employee teams using strategy map software. In turn, these adjustments will require new programs and initiatives, and possibly abandoning or postponing existing ones. As a result, new key performance indicators (KPIs) and their target measures will be required in order to monitor how well the strategies are being executed.

What might be the impact of the actions that to be taken? In most organizations, there are trade-offs. Conflict, tension and capacity constraints naturally exist in any organization. An effective analytics-based and integrated performance management system produces what-if scenarios of the various effects of changes and decisions.

And, what if some of the actions’ changes have a significant impact on spending that materially affects revenue and spending variances from the annual budget? These impacts may need to be reflected by rolling financial forecasts that are approved by the executive team. Predictably, resource decisions (such as workforce planning) may need to be made to hire, shift or downsize the work force.

In an organization, everything is connected. In nature, ants and bees are equipped to quickly react to changes in their environment, even though each type of ant or bee only has a specific skill. A mature analytics-based performance management system operates in a similar way?

The brain’s executive system distinguishes humans from other species

The neurologist’s research reported by NPR explained that although humans cannot multitask, people can switch attention from task to task very quickly. Neurologists call the part of the brain that that does this the “executive system,” and it resides in our brain’s frontal lobes, mainly relying on our eyes and ears. These executive processes allow people to make plans for future behaviors and achieve goals by ignoring distractions. These capabilities evolved to help our human ancestors – who were physically vulnerable – hunt animals that were bigger and stronger.

In an analytics-based performance management system, one can make the case that it is the integration of multiple business methodologies embedded with analytics of all types that are those frontal lobes – the executive system. Just as the brain contains lots of memory, organizations store gigantic amounts of data that can be exploited to gain insights and make better decisions.

An analytics-based performance management system bridges the gap between the CEO and the executive team’s vision and employees’ actions. People may not be able to multitask, but organizations can with business analytics.

About the Author

Gary Cokins is the global product marketing manager for Performance Management solutions at SAS, a market leader in data management, business intelligence and analytical software. He is an internationally recognized expert, speaker and author on advanced cost management and performance improvement systems. He is the author of five books, An ABC Manager's Primer, Activity-Based Cost Management: Making It Work, Activity-Based Cost Management: An Executive's Guide (Wiley), Activity-Based Cost Management in Government and his latest work, Performance Management: Finding the Missing Pieces to Close the Intelligence Gap (Wiley). You can contact him at gary.cokins@sas.com. For more of Cokins' unique look at the world, visit his blog at http://blogs.sas.com/content/cokins.

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