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Social Media and Business Intelligence: The Odd Couple

by Scott Davis, LyzasoftThursday, July 8, 2010

We love odd couples.  Oscar and Felix.  Kirk and Spock.  House and Wilson.  Pinky and Brain.  Besides affording opportunities for cliché zingers from the two personality extremes, the concept works because it mirrors everyone’s experience in this respect: the richest understanding of some aspect of life often requires approaching it from radically differing perspectives.  Planning and improvisation.  Extroversion and introversion. Passion and reason.  History and possibility. Discipline and creativity. We find richer truth in the mélange.

Business Intelligence and Social Media will be a classic odd couple.

BI and Social Media are so obviously different, we don’t need to belabor the point. BI is about structured data, structured approaches, structured language, structured…you get the point.  It’s an engineering notion, where a few “experts” at the center think carefully about data sources, transformations, calculations, etc. and then build that stuff for everyone else to use.  Social Media are about emergent issues, emergent content, emergent relationship, emergent conversation, etc.  It’s an edge-driven notion, where many “amateurs” far from the core of “experts” collaboratively engage in rapid-fire exploration and experimentation vis-à-vis specific issues du jour.

The strengths and weaknesses of BI and Social Media are complements to each other.  When you see something interesting in a chart or report, what’s your first instinct?  I bet it’s something like “I’ve got to tell Jill about this” or “I wonder if Jack knows about this.”  Intelligence always stimulates a Social impulse.  Now flip it around.  When you’re in a conference room with some peers discussing how to deal with an issue facing the team, what’s your first instinct?  I bet it’s something like “Let’s start with facts” or “What do we know about the situation?”  Collaboration always stimulates an Intelligence impulse.

Want to make your blog argument more compelling?  Incorporate some facts and data from BI.  Want to get more people involved diagnosing root causes beneath a trend in a report?  Post the report and its dataset to a Social collaboration board.    

BI suffers paltry participation as a percent of all knowledge workers in the enterprise.  Social brings wide participation.  The central BI team has difficulty responding to long-tail opportunities throughout the enterprise.  Social Media draw on a vast pool of “amateurs” to develop and share ideas quickly for unique, targeted, new, or transient opportunities.    On the other hand, Social Media often operate in a fact-void, because they were not designed for the complexities of structured analytical data.  Fortunately, BI knows structured data.  And, Social Media still struggle with rights and permissions, a domain where BI has a long track record. 

The bottom line is this: the enterprise intelligence dinner party is going to be much more vibrant if both Felix and Oscar show up and sit next to each other.

BI and Social Media will create new odd couples.

The convergence of BI and Social Media will build bridges between radically different sub-cultures of people, too – right brained and left brained, creative and analytical, operational and strategic.  When the crusty gear-head from Operations and the Warhol-wannabe creative from Marketing get together to create a united plan, the organization rightly pays attention to the odd pairing.  Many of the most profound breakthrough projects I’ve seen were boundary-busters: teams from multiple departments, data from multiple silos, creative ideas with analytical backing, objective analyses based upon creative ideas, plans with multiple coordinated prongs. 

As BI and Social Media converge, subcultures within the enterprise converge and mix.  The data geeks interact with the art directors.  The culture czars with the bean counters.  And, lots of nearer neighbors, too – like Marketing analysts and Financial analysts.  In addition to the obvious benefit of “rowing together,” this convergence of cultures holds great promise for the elevating the enterprise in two odd-couple ways:

  1. Education: When people from multiple fields engage in conversation, each learns a bit about the other’s field.  When the Finance team understands more about Marketing’s segmentation scheme, Finance sees all the business and its reports in a richer light.
  2. Innovation: Some of the greatest breakthroughs in Physics have been achieved by borrowing and reapplying ideas from Chemistry.  Could call center queue management borrow and reapply optimization techniques from shipping distribution management?

The bottom line is this: Social Media will build a bridge across which people will walk, transporting vitally diverse intelligence across departmental boundaries to spawn new ways of viewing the enterprise and its data.

The choice is not WHETHER, but HOW.

BI and Social Media convergence is happening already, informally, from the grassroots.  You do not need to force it, and you cannot prevent it.  (How many of your firm’s numbers are already in Google Docs?  More than you think.)  But, you can shape the way it happens in your enterprise. 

Here are my 3 best tips for riding this wave:

  1. You should provide tools that meet people’s instinctive social needs while also maintaining the security, trust, transparency, and traceability required by the enterprise culture.  This space is evolving quickly, so don’t spend too much money.  And, you’re not entirely sure how your culture will adapt when given these tools, so experiment and observe and adapt.
  2. You should establish principles that position the organization for short-term traction and long-term effectiveness.  I like the old adage “Think global. Act local.” Focus first on equipping and encouraging a few of the organization’s existing analytical communities, who can help seed the platform with publications, BUT do not isolate them from each other with technical or policy walls.  Let the social process bleed across boundaries naturally from these local incubation beds.  And, provide facilitators and moderators to catalyze the process, filling in the gaps until the community achieves critical mass.
  3. You should share your experiences and learn from others’ experiences.  Attend conferences like Defrag and Enterprise2 and Gartner Collaboration.  I’ll be speaking on this topic at the Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence Conference Europe in London, November 3-5.  Join us.  Also, you should read whitepapers from thought leaders like Allen Bonde (“Blending BI and Web2: The Path to Collaborative Intelligence”) and Colin White (“Using Collaboration to Extend the Reach of BI”).  Finally, you should talk with consulting firms who’ve been working in this space, including NorthstarBI, Aleutian Consulting, Well Connected World, Tholis Consulting, Third Nature, Datasource Consulting, and Intelligent Business Strategies.

About the Author

Scott Davis has 20 years experience applying information and decision science to leading enterprises in several industries, including air transportation, utilities, telecom, mining, high-tech, and financial services.  His insights reflect a career spanning three different perspectives on BI: departmental executive, external advisor, and technology entrepreneur.  Scott’s primary research and practice interests have ranged from expert optimization systems in the 90’s, to hosted DW/BI in the early 00’s, to the convergence of Enterprise2.0 with BI today.  He blogs at www.circaspecting.typepad.com and can be reached at scott@lyzasoft.com.

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