That's a Really Good Question

  |  October 28, 2010   |  Comments

To be competitive, your job is to hire, train, and lead people so they will ask good questions.

In a not-so-recent Harvard Business Review article called "Analysis without Analysts," Tom Davenport ruminated about the possibility of getting your computer to kick out insights instead of just charts and graphs. He lamented that, "There won't be enough people to deal with all the supply-chain, web-analytics, ERP, point-of-sale, loyalty-program, and other types of data that will appear," and that we need systems (he pointed to a financial analysis tool as an example) to help us.

And someday we'll have flying cars and cities under the sea.

Don't get me wrong - I can't wait for my own flying car and am much in favor of the undersea lifestyle, it's just the "in-my-lifetime" thing I have a problem with.

I remember back about 10 years, at an IBM SurfAid* users' conference, when then product manager John Payne rolled out a new feature. It was an "insightful conclusions" report that SurfAid generated from a set of business rules.

If conversion is going down but traffic is not going up, there may be a problem.
If traffic from one search engine is dropping faster than the others, there may be a problem.

These sorts of alerts are great for the analyst who wants to be tapped on the shoulder and notified that something is worth a look. That was the idea behind Technology Leaders' Dynamic Alert. "Use the Alert Control Panel to drill down into the alerts you've received. Change date ranges and sensitivity. Review historical trends and report summaries. Then, go to the Web Analytics reports themselves." Hey! There's something over here! Take a look!

Google Analytics provides AdWords Alerts, Custom Alerts, and Analytics Intelligence to draw your attention, "anytime something significant happens."

Offerings from Insight Rocket go one step further. Same idea - when big things happen, humans should come and take a look - but this start-up is making it possible to bring together data feeds, "spanning all of your data sources."

None of them go so far as to suggest that they solve the people shortage problem; people who can analyze, synthesize, and conceptualize.

We have data coming out of our ears. We have technology that can slice and dice that data any which way and give us answers quicker than ever. But the magic is not in the answers. The magic is in the questions.

To be competitive, your job is to hire, train, and lead people so they will ask good questions.

They need to be educated and experienced of course. But creative, artistic, and even fanciful are assets. Albert Einstein is credited with saying things like:

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.

The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Machines can find a correlation between gallons of ice cream and gallons of lemonade sold in a given day, but would never think to consider the weather as the possible cause. Your job is to find people with education and experience and encourage them to be thinkers.

Asking good questions is an art. The rest is just science.

*For those keeping score, IBM's SurfAid was sold in 2006 to Coremetrics; IBM then acquired Coremetrics three months ago. Got that? (An earlier version of this column misidentified the company that acquired SurfAid/Coremetrics.)


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Jim Sterne

Jim Sterne is an international consultant who focuses on measuring the value of the Web as a medium for creating and strengthening customer relationships. Sterne has written eight books on using the Internet for marketing, is the founding president and current chairman of the Digital Analytics Association and produces the eMetrics Summit and the Media Analytics Summit.

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