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Volume Analytics:
Two Excellent Books for Spreading the Word

online columnist Guy Creese     Column published in DMReview.com
November 17, 2005
  By Guy Creese

From time to time BI practitioners ask me to recommend some books on business intelligence. However, they aren't looking for books for themselves - they know which volume or article to dive into, based on today's project or crisis - but rather something that will explain BI to an important manager or peer. They're looking for a clear overview of the discipline - and know that the technical, arcane books they read will instantly put a business reader to sleep.

"Come, on," they say, "you must know something I can pass along to my counterpart so he has a clue what I'm talking about when I say 'OLAP cube' or 'data mart.' If he isn't comfortable with BI and its business value, I know he's not going to champion my projects on the business side of the house - and in these days of tight budgets, I need that kind of support. Help!"

So following are two recommendations. The first is a book I only stumbled upon last month, and the second is a book I've been recommending for years. But one or the other (or both) should be a good introduction to BI to folks who need some familiarity with the subject, but don't have the time or inclination to become experts.

Why BI Is Important: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Although Moneyball came out several years ago, I gave it a pass. After all, it's about baseball - and I'm just not that interested in the sport. Living in the Boston area, my wife and daughter are much more attuned to the Boston Red Sox than I am. However, in October, I gave a speech at the IE Summit - and Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, was the keynote speaker. He talked about how statistical analysis - applied correctly - is changing baseball. I have to tell you, his talk was riveting - and I quickly devoured Moneyball after I got home.

If you can pass only one book along about BI to someone who currently sneers at the discipline, this is the one to give them. For it makes it very clear the damage that management can inflict by running a business through gut feel and attention to the wrong numbers. In addition, it's an easy read - the lessons creep in without hitting the reader over the head.

I'll try to summarize the gist of the book - but once again, I recommend you read the book itself. Baseball, for a long time, has been a game of statistics: strike outs, RBIs (runs batted in), ERAs (earned run average), and a myriad of other stats typically roll off the tongue of baseball aficionados. However, in 1977, a man named Bill James, a night watchman at a Stokely Van Camp pork and beans factory, published a paper entitled, "1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else." In this mimeographed paper, he questioned the wisdom of tracking errors, pointing out that this is a statistic that tracks an opinion - the scorer thought the player should have fielded the ball when he didn't. James noted that a good way for a player to avoid being charged with an error was to be in the wrong place or to move so slowly it was clear he couldn't have made the play.

This initial insight - "Maybe we're counting the wrong things" - quietly lurked for years. Eventually, statisticians from Wall Street and universities took up the cause, until the theory became reality at the Oakland As in 2002. At that point, the As had little money to spend - they simply had to become more productive to remain competitive. Consequently, the club crunched numbers and hired highly productive players that other teams discounted because they didn't look the part, or who angered their managers by ignoring bad rules such as: stealing bases is good.

The result? In 2002, the Oakland As won more games during the regular season than any other ball club except the New York Yankees. Furthermore, they did so by paying less than any of their competitors in the American League West. For example, Oakland won 103 games with a payroll of $41,942,665; Texas won 72 games with a payroll 2.5 times larger: $106,915,180. Need I say more?

If anyone needs instruction on the value of BI, Moneyball offers it.

A Business View of BI: e-Business Intelligence by Bernard Liautaud

After you've convinced your colleague of the value of BI, you probably want to give him or her a primer on BI technology. e-Business Intelligence by Bernard Liautaud fits the bill. Written in 2001 by the then president and CEO of Business Objects (Bernard is now chairman of the board and chief strategy officer), it's a nice introduction to the reasons for, and mechanics of, business intelligence. While not compact (304 pages), it's also not long winded. In it, Bernard talks about the increasing need for BI; how it can help companies make better, faster decisions; and how it offers information sharing opportunities with partners.

In the course of the book, he describes technology such as data warehouses, OLAP cubes and RFM scoring. However, it's written for C-level readers, so the emphasis is on the "why" rather than the "what" and, consequently, is full of real-life examples, rather than technoid tidbits. Once again, this is an excellent introduction to BI for an interested business professional. With this as a foundation and overview, he or she is well-prepared for learning more about BI if need be.

Spread the BI Word: Pass Out a Book

There you have it. Two books that will help you spread the word about the whys and wherefores of business intelligence. The next time you have a recalcitrant user who just doesn't get it, hand him or her these two books. It may be the cheapest $42 you've ever spent.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Analytics and Business Intelligence (BI).

Guy Creese is an analyst with the Burton Group, covering content management and search. Creese has worked in the high tech industry for 25 years, at both Fortune 500 companies and small startups, in positions ranging from programmer to product manager to customer support engineer.  He can be reached at gcreese@burtongroup.com.

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