Saturday, August 29, 2009

Data Vs Information

Business Intelligence has come a long way but the essence of data and information remains the same. To understand BI and Information Systems, one needs to understand the essential difference between “data” and “information”.

I once remember having a debate with a CIO on all systems being called as “data systems” or “information systems”- I do strongly believe that it needs to be called as data systems rather than information systems. I also had a mental debate on google’s mission which is “to organize world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”- Ideally this is to organize world’s data.

Here is my disconnect- I don’t think so, in today’s dynamic world, we can actually classify “information”. All we are doing is to classify “data” and we never know when it becomes “information”. Its extremely dynamic!

I will illustrate with couple of examples but before going there, lets get in to the fundamental difference between data and information. Traditionally we all know that processed data becomes information- when does it become processed? Based on my know-how, data becomes information when we make a “decision”. Suppose I want to meet a renowned dentist in a new town, I surf the internet and get the relevant contact details so that I can meet that dentist- My decision here is to do a root canal treatment with that dentist and at that time the data on the contact details of the dentist becomes information. Till that time, its just raw data- When I don’t have to do the root canal treatment, I will be least interested in even getting to that data or looking at that data. Does that ring a bell?

Let me take another example- Suppose you run “pizza hut” in India. You get unique 200 customers daily and you store all their relevant details viz., first name, last name, wedding anniversary, birthday, what pizza they like the most etc in a database. Now in this list of details; which one is data and which one is information?- In my mind, all of it is just raw data. Suppose, I suddenly decide to run a promotional campaign to give free pizza’s for “x” number of customers whose birthday falls on some date, then that filtered data becomes information for me as I need to email all of them to come to my place. This decision of running a promotional campaign was all of sudden- I could have taken a decision to send free pizza for people who frequent my place all the time. I can’t document all the decisions that I take all the time as business is dynamic and so are decisions. My decisions are dictated by the dynamic nature of the business! That’s where the real catch lies on data and information. Don’t you agree? Based on my decision, the data that I have stored becomes information. If I don’t create large “data systems”, I never will be able to take information out of them.

Given this logic, I do believe that google is organizing world’s data so that it becomes information in the right time for people when they make a decision.

Business Intelligence all the time is grappling with this dilemma because we cannot document all our decisions based on past history. Based on my business need, my decisions become super dynamic and at that time I cannot be found wanting for data. So in my endeavour to ensure that I have all the relevant data, I capture everything because I don’t know what becomes information and when? I cannot control or tabulate all my present and future decisions but definitely I can invest on storing all types of data because it can become information depending on my need. Given this, real time business intelligence becomes an tricky challenge unless and until we document all our past, present and future decisions.

Don’t you all agree? I would love to hear your views about this…

Then comes the whole angle of “analytics”….Till then

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"You Know"- Is this communication's greatest filler or failure?

Imagine this scenario- A senior leader or a politician or a management expert comes in to speak and the topic goes this way:

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen- I came here to talk about green energy- What is green energy? You know, this is a……You know… has….. You know….blah…You know…blah…You know…blah… You know repeated 150 minutes over the next 10 minutes then moving on to infinity of “you know”’s.

In December, 2008, Caroline Kennedy used “You Know” 142 times – a lot of internet sites has that video; during that conversation, I am sure that all of us gave our full focus on the fillers and its appearance the next time. It’s more of predicting the occurrence in a speech rather than listening to that speech. Don’t you agree?

A lot of times, we inadvertently use the filler, “you know” while we communicate- There is no harm if it is used once or twice during a conversation. But it becomes super frustrating to understand someone’s thoughts if it is used throughout the conversation. Some of my preliminary studies on various leaders, various communicators indicate that they use this filler quite generously.

My observations indicate an alarming frequency of this usage- This one is for hardcore statisticians and for folks who like data; On an average, I have observed the usage of fillers some 150-200 times in a 15 minute conversation. “You Know” as the filler is the leader of the pack followed by “like”, “I mean”, “means”, “as in”, “huh” in some geographies. In other geographies, some other filler takes the place!- Somehow YW (shortened for “You Know”) has this egregious ability to penetrate all conversations and spoil the whole show. It’s like a virus that’s constantly spreading unless we consciously ostracize it.

I have personally experienced the ability of YW peeping in my conversations- Most of the times we never recognize its destructive ability until someone points it out. In your professional life, people rarely point out; sometimes people point out depending on the hierarchy level that you are in. The higher you go, the number of people who give you candid feedback comes down tremendously and you have to rely on informal sources. Interestingly, my wife pointed this all the time whenever I was giving a talk- I used to get all irritated when she used to point out but I never got angry on YW. I have consciously eradicated the frequency but it does take time when one is habituated to use fillers.

Based on my experience, I can suggest couple of measures to eradicate it:
• Please acknowledge that we use fillers
• Observe your speech- The best way is to listen a recorded speech as that has the best prophylactic effect
• If you don’t have the means to record your speech, have a neutral person outside your organization evaluate your speech – During that time, please ask him or her to note down the fillers
• Once you have done this, you can validate the annoyance of fillers in our daily speech
• If you have reached this stage, you have won 75% of the battle
• The remaining 25% is just execution- Consciously avoiding it, replacing it with silences- Sometimes a pregnant silences will do. 
• Once you have done it, re-record your present conversation and compare it with the earlier one- Then pat one on your back and reward yourself a “Hagen-Dass” ice cream or whatever “you know”! 

On one of my earlier listening sessions, I was hearing one of the senior leaders speak on one of the management sessions and the frequency of YW in a 10 minute conversation was 250 times. It was really an arduous task for me to segregate the real content after removing the fillers. The person really had great content but YW really made a mess of the content. The only thing that remains is, “you know”, I don’t know what to say!

In today’s world, communication has become the greatest tool for everyone irrespective of his/her designation- Communication coaches, advisors and mentors should definitely point this out to senior leaders today. It’s okay to use it but definitely not okay to overuse it- When someone does that, the real content vanishes and all it remains is the filler!

Although fillers are a good tool to create on the fly thinking especially when you are on the spot, or when you are thinking aloud or when you want to wing the conversation; this tool needs to be used sparingly!

Don’t you all agree? Would love to hear your views or your experience of fillers or your experience on listening to a fun-filled overused “filler” conversation?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mandated Sabbatical for Leaders

Leaders should take a sabbatical once in 2 years??

Can this be institutionalized? This blog post idea came up after reading up articles about Steve Jobs health and his forced vacation from Apple leaving to his successors - Apple’s shares slumped down by 5.7% after hearing about Jobs health news. There was a lot of talk on media, internet about CEO jobs unexpected absence raising uncertainty over leadership, innovation, deal-making, Apple brand building et al. There were talks about Jobs earlier sabbatical and how it influenced Apple and how it will be influencing now; There is also a good amount of bytes spent on Apple sustaining innovation during this period and how it can bounce back etc etc. Tim Cook (COO) is currently acting as the chief-in-command for Apple and recently Scott Forstall (senior VP of iPhone software) gave a good performance in the Macworld- this really signaled the fact that Apple could continue to pull off its marketing campaigns without Jobs at least for some time.

I am not attempting to write about Apple or how it can work in Steve Jobs absence- I want to correlate this to a concept in management on whether leaders should mandatorily take a sabbatical once in 2 years or not. The open questions are:
1. Is it really healthy for the company?
2. Is it really good for the shareholders?
3. Is it feasible in the long run?
4. Is it sustainable?
5. How long should the sabbatical be?
6. Is it 1 month, 2 months or 3 months?
7. Will the incumbent organization benefit because of this sabbatical? Will the leaders bounce off with new ideas after getting rejuvenated?
8. How do we calculate ROI on this sort of thing? What should be the measure?

In my view, I think at a high level, top leaders taking a short sabbatical is certainly healthy for the organization in two ways-
1. Can strengthen the organization in leadership development & succession planning and get new perspectives- There will be mandated change and there will be a culture of change
2. Can allow the leader to think of revolutionary new ideas, new ways of making the organization achieve its objective- This is possible during a sabbatical as technically the leader is still thinking about the organization

Diving deep in to point one- Strengthen the organization in to leadership development & succession planning:

Leadership development is becoming very important due to change in demographics as the “baby boomers” are getting to retirement age. In addition to this, it has been estimated that 50% of the organizations are facing talent shortages especially in the mid-management and director-level positions. There is an acute need to respond to generational differences and organizations are trying to understand the difference between generations, motivating employees from different generations, leveraging talent of these generations.

Typically lot of organizations have a mandate for succession planning and developing leaders in the pipeline- But the statistics say otherwise! Succession Planning plays a crucial role in developing a strong leadership pipeline. This has to work at all levels and not just at the top level or only at the middle level- The culture of succession planning enables a culture of change and its necessary for all organizations to undergo this. When leaders take a sabbatical, they necessarily have to get the successor focus on all the issues, challenges that s/he was doing; This creates a degree of self-assurance for the successor and indirectly builds up the confidence for both parties. Imagine all of these wrapped in a process and a culture whereby all leaders mandatorily should take a sabbatical and come back to reassess where things stand. It is also a reflection of how well they have built teams that can withstand without the leader and also enables the leader to sit back and think of new ideas for the organization. We all know the challenges surrounding it? The challenges are different for a public listed firm, VC backed firm, privately held firm. But, hey we are still talking about the concept- At the top part of the decision tree, if the decision is YES for a sabbatical, then we drill to the next decision tree- Is it a public/private/VC? Then we get to the next level of challenges but at a high level, are we in agreement?

For the attention to detail readers, I will dive deeper in to each one of the challenges in my next blog- I do not want to digress from the core topic of mandating a sabbatical for a leader?

On Point Two- Gives time for the leader to think of new ideas!

This is definitely a loaded statement- Does it mean that leaders don’t think of new ideas while they are working? Are they not supposed to think of it all the time? It is an utopian thought to get everything done at the same time- How can organizations create this framework whereby leaders get some time to think of fresh ideas? We all can guarantee that a “true” leader will be always thinking of continual improvement even when s/he is on vacation or a sabbatical- Its anyways leading for a positive change in the organization. You can take the sabbatical from the leader but you can NEVER take the leadership thinking from a leader. With this optimistic view, don’t we all acknowledge that this creates a framework where in leaders understand the expectations, go back to the drawing board in a leisure manner and think about it in a holistic manner. I am sure that this will happen and everyone will benefit from it tremendously. A lot of people in Silicon Valley are eagerly waiting for the next big blockbuster from Apple as they all feel that Steve Jobs will come up with some cool idea during his health break! Maybe it will happen- We never know!

In addition to this, it will also give time for the leader to think of challenging roles/areas in his current portfolio rather than walking away from it. Let me give an example- Most of the time, leaders get bored with their current portfolio and they want change (although this is never openly told but it’s always there!). The sabbatical can help leaders understand the fact that the “grass is never green on the other side”. It gets back the rigor and focus of new ideas!

What do you all feel? I know that I have consciously made it provocative in some instances but the idea is to publish my thoughts and get yours as well on this topic!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Nano Launch: Sentiments!

There is a lot of talk around Nano launch- Being in India and being a hard core Indian, we all have multiple questions on the launch:

· Is it the right time to launch when the world is in recession?
· Is this a car that India needs now?
· Is this the car that rural India is looking for?
· Is it going to be a huge success?
· How will India’s traffic scenario alter due to this?
· How will parking be in future for people who own sedan’s/luxury cars?
· What will be the modus operandi for tour/travel operator?

Some of the voices around this launch are:
1. This is great for India’s international image and we should capitalize that
2. All patriotic Indians should buy this
3. This syncs up well with CK Prahlad’s vision of “Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid”
4. All two-wheeler population will acquire a new status owing to Nano- this is great for them!
5. This is a good extra car that can be had!

While this blog is not going to attempt to answer all the questions or try to say that the voices are right/wrong- this blog is just to reflect the populist sentiments around this launch and get other opinions from my blog readers on what/how they perceive this to launch to be. The reason why I selected “Nano” is simple- This is a great vision by Tata and I would like to understand from the readers what they feel/think about it.

From my perspective, I would like to say that this is a great vision translated in to execution- A great example of “Activity Based Costing/Target Based Costing”; I set up the price of my end product and work backwards to ensure that it is feasible. An awesome example of lateral thinking in manufacturing where the bonnet does not consist of the standard materials and the whole design is optimized around my target cost. This is also an example of sheer execution whereby all the roadblocks have been averted to achieve the objective. Don’t you agree?

I do have a lot of thoughts regarding Nano on how it can:
1. Bridge the status for many people
2. Allow people to convert their dreams in reality
3. Ensure safe travel
4. How a good segment of population will take a cautious approach before buying? They will wait and watch till the official verdict is on

Again, I don’t want this blog to sound like a product information log or a feature log but would like capture the sentiments of every Indian who is thinking about Nano.

What do you all feel? Please feel free to share your sentiments on comments.