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Business Analytics and Multi-Wavelength Astronomy

In a magazine article I recently read about astronomy and cosmology I was struck by the similarities between analytics practitioners, some referred to as “data scientists,” and multi-wavelength astronomers who use spectroscopy instruments.

For those who may not be familiar with astronomy, multi-wavelength astronomers are researchers who analyze mountains of data about stars and star formation in our universe. Astronomical spectroscopy can be divided into three bands across the broad light spectrum: optical, radio and X-ray.  

X-ray astronomy is used to view galaxies where young stars are being formed from the gravity collapse of gases. The resulting radiation emitted is detectable as infrared, visible and ultraviolet light across the broad wavelength spectrum. This is light that can be viewed from other parts of the light spectrum. X-ray emission is relatively weak; hence, astronomers depend on multi-wavelength data from all three light spectrum bands for more complete data to place measurements into context.

How are Astronomy and Business Analytics Alike?

The point of the magazine article was that multi-wavelength astronomy combines the best available data from every band of the light spectrum for the same object, such as a star or galaxy. This is similar to the task of practitioners in the analytics and enterprise performance management communities. An organization cannot make better decisions and improve its performance by focusing on only one variable, such as cost, time, quality, service-level and so on. These factors are interdependent. So, it is a much more complex problem. Plus there is more volatility today, caused in part by reduced trade barriers from globalization, which has increased uncertainty about the future. Analysts are on a mission to reduce uncertainty.

As examples of types of analysts, the cost analyst may examine product and standard service-line costs and profit margins. The customer relationship management analyst may examine customer satisfaction and loyalty data. The Six Sigma quality team may examine quality. The lean management team may study process cycle-times and throughput rates. The operations analyst may examine production schedules, inventories, and resource capacity levels. But all of things are connected! An analyst examines data for investigation and discovery. All organizations have many moving parts, like gears in a machine. Hence, there are many interdependencies loaded with variables. This is what excites analysts; using software tools, they have the keys to unlock insight and foresight from the data. A challenge for them is to determine which keys will work.

EPM practitioners examine how all of these factors fit together. Their objective is to help their organizations perform better, faster and cheaper -- but there is more to it than just those three aspirations. There is also a need to be safer , by integrating findings from the enterprise risk management community. In addition, all of these factors must align with constantly changing strategic objectives defined by the executive team. And, in using strategy maps and key performance indicators displayed in dashboards a fifth aspiration is added – to be smarter.

Analytics Software Provides the Instruments for Research

Business intelligence and business analytics software provide the instrumentation for analysts and managers. This type of software is similar to what telescopes provide for astronomers – the power to see, to test hypotheses, to understand and to know.

Each type of analyst is trained in his or her field on how to think. They learn about techniques such as regression and correlation analysis. In contrast, the business analytics and enterprise performance management disciplines - like multi-wavelength astronomy - train people where  to think. The typical “excellence” message that motivational speakers often promote of high performance at every level of an organization, is important, but it is too simplistic. It may make you feel warm and fuzzy to hear about being excellent, but it rarely lasts because there typically insufficient sustaining actions. Focus is required, and focus is what business analytics and enterprise performance management methods bring. The objective for any organization is to be better, faster, cheaper and also safer and smarter.

Should Organizations be Smart or Healthy?

All organizations suffer from an imbalance of how much emphasis should be placed on being smart rather than being healthy. Most organizations over-emphasize trying to be smart by hiring MBAs and management consultants with a quest to achieve a run-it-by-the-numbers management style. These types of organizations miss the relevance of how important is to also be healthy – assuring that employee morale is high and employee turnover is low. They miss the need to also ensure that managers and employees are deeply involved in understanding the leadership team’s strategic intent and direction setting. Healthy behavior improves the likelihood of employee buy-in and commitment.

What is needed to correct this imbalance between organizational intelligence and health? Right from the start, you have to think like a sociologist and, arguably, you need to be a psychologist too. People matter – a lot – and strong leadership is necessary. Never underestimate the magnitude of resistance to change. It is natural for people to love the status quo.

Today the best leaders are not the ones with best answers typically based on their experience or intuition. The best leaders are the ones with the best questions. They motivate their organization to learn.

Like the multi-wavelength astronomers, organizations with a culture of analytics and burning desire to improve performance will leverage analytics to solve problems and pursue opportunities.

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