The conference as an education, I have never quite been sure whether that was really true or not at least until recently. I have learnt some ‘things’ at different conferences in the past but I hadn’t really experienced the ‘end to end’ learning experience that was the Gartner Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit in London in early March.

I can’t put my finger on what it was that made it stand out from other events, the people, the topic, the venue or just a collection of all of the above maybe?

The summit opened with a description of the different personas that make up the Business Intelligence enthusiast. The question of the whole audience was, ‘Are you an enthusiast, sceptic or pragmatist?’ As you can imagine a good balance of enthusiast and pragmatist, and, well you wouldn’t really dare admit to being a sceptic of the subject that the summit was about I guess.

But as an opening session this then got very interesting as the analysts presenting got into the detail of what each persona brings to an organisations ability to take forward a Business Intelligence agenda, and how to make the most of all three personas. The enthusiast was full of wonderful stories of BI in action. The first of these stories was about SMART Metering, and how, with the ability to track individual energy signatures in each household, in real time, it would be possible to identify houses where a hairdryer was being used excessively. Then make that data available to a hair product company who could drop targeted advertisements to the house for products to fix hair that needed treatment due to over use of a hairdryer! This wasn’t ‘pie in the sky’ this was possible now!

However the next persona was able to point out how close that was to the ‘Creepy Line’ a mythical line in the sand that, if crossed, will turn the population away from your brand. The pragmatist persona could, as you would imagine, see the use in analysing data but was quick to find and alert the audience to the risk of leaping forward too quickly and not considering the impact on customers in realisation to just what data could reveal.

During these three personas being discussed though the audience was able to see examples of the business impetus for BI in several different ways. These included, the connected LED light bulb from Phillips, the character categorisation tool for an individual Twitter feed from IBM and the ability to 3D print simple food items! All discussed and from the different perspectives of the personas.

The conversation moved on though to a discussion around the skills required for the capability of BI to make a difference inside a business. The presenters of this section posed a series of questions, not least of which, how many managers know the difference between, Mean Median and Mode. The team were putting forward an idea that the Information team should not be the team applying brakes, it should be the business asking to go faster and information providing the assurance that brakes exist should they be needed.

What is the reliability of BI and how do we improve its value was also covered as the two days went on. 80% of people would classify themselves as being in the top 50% of drivers when it comes to capability! The information department that provides the assurance of the car brakes will cut through the ‘Noise’ to get to the ‘Signal’.

Even Arthur C Clarke was brought to bear on the delivery of BI, his quote that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Applying the concept of BI as magic was carried through to a number of the supplier presentations. Qlik talking about the work they have done on SMART meter outputs with British Gas and Microsoft and TFL presenting the case study of the analytics they can do, to name just two of quite a few. All of these staying just the right side of the ‘Creepy Line’.

Unlike other conferences I have been to there seemed to be a great deal of discussion over coffee and in the corridors between sessions, one that I found myself embroiled in was around at what point in time does information become BI. The discussion was around the concept of analytics as a staged approach:

    • Descriptive – ‘What to try next?’
    • Diagnostic – ‘What went wrong last?’
    • Predictive – ‘ What can we do in the future to change?’
    • Prescriptive – ‘If you do X then Y will happen!’
      • Or – I can decide for you!

The group of people were very quickly coming to the decision that you only truly can describe what you offer as BI if you have information presented that aids decision support rather than acts as a reference for what has gone before.

Comparing a Data Scientist to a Chauffer was the next tack! The chauffer, a role that has largely disappeared as a profession and yet there are still as many ‘drivers’ registered per capita as there were in the 1940s. The suggestion was that Data Scientists and Information Managers will be the equivalent in times to come, they will disappear as specifically identifiable roles as the use of BI becomes ingrained in all that we do, but the need to have experts, educated to deliver the requirement and the number of resource needed to achieve the demand will continue. But there was some additional conversations to this, where the consideration of building BI capability within the organisation was raised, a consideration of Information Systems people as the ‘store front’ to BI only.

As an organisation we want to get to this description and through our investment in BI tools we think we are on our way.

Overall though this is just a tiny snap shot of some amazing concepts and learning opportunities put there for us to use and apply. Certainly the next iteration of our BI strategy will incorporate as much of this as we can and it will even have an impact on the immediate changes we are making to the units we are deploying.