I want to let you in on a secret. One that I haven’t (up until now) told many people. Although I travel a lot with my work, I have never liked flying. Until a few years ago, I had an irrational fear of flying—to the point where I had a rather embarrassing ‘panic attack’ at an airport around 12 years ago—it really was quite spectacular for any onlookers! Although I’m now less scared of flying, I still absolutely hate turbulence. (And, incidentally, isn’t it ironic that the turbulence always seems to kick-in when the coffee is being served?)
I was travelling on a long-haul flight very recently, and was passing the time by doing what I like to call the ‘economy shuffle’. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself—it’s where you try to balance a laptop on the tray table, whilst sipping a coffee and eating a bagel—all without spilling anything, without nudging another passenger and trying to maintain some level of professional dignity in the process. It should be an Olympic sport—and it’s one that I would fail at spectacularly!
As I bit down into my breakfast bagel, I noticed a gentle beep of the fasten-seatbelt-sign coming on. The Captain came over the speakers:
“Just a quick update on our flight today. We’re making great progress, with a strong tailwind—however, we’re scheduled to hit some bumpy air very soon. We’re expecting it’ll be pretty rough, and we’re hitting it right where we expected to, so you’ll notice we’ve illuminated the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign. We should be through it within 30 to 45 minutes, but we’ll keep you posted. Please return to your seats, and fasten your seatbelts with your tray tables folded and the armrests down.”
As ever in these situations, the Captain sounded calm—and the Cabin Crew went about their business checking that everything was in order. I shuffled my laptop back into my hand luggage, chugged down the remnants of my coffee and tried to relax. And boy was it a choppy flight — probably amongst the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered — but I took some comfort in knowing it would only last for 45 minutes.
The plane landed safely a few hours later, and in the airport it dawned on me that I wasn’t scared, worried or panicked during the turbulence at all, which was great. I started to pull this idea apart and analyse it (well, I am a business analyst after all…). Why didn’t the turbulence bother me on this flight? Was it the whisky I’d had at the airport to calm my nerves? Whilst that might have been a contributing factor, on reflection I concluded that it all seemed more bearable because the Captain had warned us in advance and had given us the likely duration of the discomfort. I also presume he’d steered a course to minimise the turbulence, within the constraints of his flight path. The Captain had read the external environment well from his instruments, prepared his stakeholders (including passengers), and we’d all had a much better ride as a result.
As I wandered around the destination airport in a tired and jet-lagged state, it struck me how this pattern applies to business too. A crisis can be averted if it is predicted and carefully communicated and the right corrective manoeuvres are adopted. This relies on regular monitoring of the external business environment. Strategic environment analysis is a critical part of business analysis and should be considered an activity that is ‘business as usual’. External techniques like PESTLE or Porter’s 5-forces can be useful techniques. As businesses get more and more sophisticated and collect and collate more data and information, asking the question “How can we generate potential insight and testable hypotheses from our organisational data” becomes extremely important. Let’s face it, lack of data is rarely the problem, lack of analysis and actionable insight can be.
What this means for business and business analysis
Like a pilot flying a plane, our clients and project sponsors are setting out to achieve a strategic destination. It’s essential that we know what this destination is so that we can help them get towards it and so that we can analyse requirements and potential solutions. It’s equally important that they have a pragmatic and usable dashboard that helps them assess progress without being overwhelming. Take the instruments on a cockpit panel—they might take data from multiple sensors all over the plane but present it in a way that is quickly intelligible and usable by the pilot. The same is true in business—knowing the status of tens of thousands of data points may be important for operational reasons. Consolidating them to a sub-set of usable Key Performance Indicators allows steering and leadership. Ensuring the dashboard can be adapted when the environment changes and different data becomes important is essential too. We can help our business stakeholders, clients or project sponsors by helping them establish and surface the right indicators and avoid drowning in data. Where data is less structured, we can help them form a hypothesis and help them implement mechanisms for testing it.
So often though, data is forgotten about when progressing projects within an organisation. Perhaps we are engaged to implement a new cloud-based solution or even to outsource a service to a managed service provider. Whatever the project, we can help a great deal by keeping data firmly in the organisation’s consciousness, and ensuring that the organisations we work with are considering the analysis and analytic capabilities that they require. Whilst we might be approached to implement a new system/processes/organisational change, we can add value by considering and championing the cause for data. Doing so will ensure the organisation has the information it needs to operate efficiently and effectively. Not only this, we can also keep a firm eye on the external business environment of the organisations that we work with—if we spot potential opportunities or threats on the horizon, we can highlight them. We might just spot something crucial!
In summary: Ensuring our organisations have the data needed to examine the external business environment is key, and we can add significant value by advocating data throughout every engagement and project.
What are your views on keeping data on the agenda? I’d love to hear from you. Please add a comment below.
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This post was brought to you by IBM for MSPs and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s PivotPoint. Dedicated to providing valuable insight from industry thought leaders, PivotPoint offers expertise to help you develop, differentiate and scale your business.