We give business people everything. They’ve got data, and often it’s clean. They’ve got tools, and many are easy to use. They’ve got visualizations, and many of them speed things up. They’ve got domain knowledge, at least most do. Tell me: Why hasn’t business intelligence penetrated more than about 20 percent of business users?

It’s a critical question for the analytics industry. The first vendors to establish a credible colony on that frontier have a bounty waiting for them. 

Looking for Clues 

For now, we have little to go on but clues and intuition. For example, a recent New York Times article about the carelessly quantified reactions to Uber service: Drivers and riders alike seem to earn mostly five-star ratings or one-star ratings, and little in between, a corruption of data quality. Then just last week, a telling tweet read, “As a creative, analytics bores me stupid.” Boredom is often just disguised fear, which is often a cover for lack of skill.

Data quality and lack of analytical skill, in fact, were two of the leading reasons mentioned in a discussion last summer at the annual Pacific Northwest BI Summit in a discussion led by industry icon Claudia Imhoff and Harriet Fryman, IBM's vice president of worldwide marketing, information management.

What would other industries do? “Got Milk?” worked for dairy farmers. Got analytics? If only a credible industry group would step forward. After all, said Imhoff later, “This isn’t a technical problem. It’s a business problem.”

The business problem has occurred to others. Why has penetration seem to have stalled at 20 percent? Qlik Vice President of Innovation Donald Farmer believes it may reflect a traditional management tactic: the span of control. Typically, a manager has from five to 10 deputies. BI’s estimated penetration fits a practice in which the manager makes decisions and the deputies act on them.

Not In Love With Data?

Several of the two dozen others who sat around the big table last summer have other views. The one I find most convincing comes from Yellowfin CEO Glen Rabie. “There’s an explanation in the industry that everyone will become analytical,” he said. “People in BI think everyone loves data. It’s very wrong.”

Perhaps worse, said Rabie, is that the tools don’t accommodate different modes of comprehension. Contrary to the market buzz, visualization doesn’t work for everyone. There’s also audio and, yes, words. For a group of lawyers his company works for, he said, “a chart means nothing. … But give them 10 pages of text, and that means something.”

To each his own? That might be the right strategy. But a more useful, marketable strategy might be to base products on a technique that has proven itself from the time of cave painting: stories. 

Tell Me A Story

In fact, storytelling was mentioned in last summer’s session, even though the simple, clear prediction was barely acknowledged in the moment. “Storytelling will be huge,” said session co-leader Fryman. Storytelling is what people do already. They tell each other how to interpret data. That’s because, she said, very few people can accurately interpret numbers. Even fewer can interpret unstructured data.

To reach "The Other 80 Percent," let’s turn away from the “data scientist” and to the acting coach. “A lot has to do with intangible skills,” said Farmer. A lot also has to do with traditional story structure, which appeals to “a deep grammar that’s very persuasive and memorable.”

But what product feature would help? Narrative templates seem plausible, but they risk falling into a boring rut. The best strategy for a product, said Farmer, may be to just get out of the way.

Storytelling isn’t a feature, it’s a practice. One practicing storyteller, with the title “transmedia storyteller,” is Bree Baich, on the team of Summit regular Jill Dyché, SAS vice president, best practices.  While others talk about stories, she said, most people seem to start and end with data and leave out the storytelling art. They fail to connect data with any underlying passion. “What we need are translators, people who understand data but can tell the human story from which it arose.”

Sounds Familiar

What Baich describes — and what Summit regulars seem to recognize — is something like journalism. That’s the craft of digesting facts and presenting them in form that’s interesting and understandable. Sometimes it’s long and complex, and sometimes it’s quick and simple. Sometimes it’s in words, and sometimes it’s a video or just a single image.

Storytelling seems to be gaining traction, which is hopeful. Few frontiers have been colonized or disruptive products conceived that were based on tired old assumptions, and no one wants to be left selling has-been products.

Whether storytelling is an acknowledged topic at this summer’s BI Summit remains to be seen. Organizer and industry publicist Scott Humphrey and his brain trust — which includes Farmer, Imhoff, Fryman, Rabie, and Dyché — have no doubt begun to ponder the agenda. Fryman’s prediction about storytelling’s promise may yet have its day around the big table.

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