We are drowning in a sea of statistics. Too much time is taken up by generating reports that no one needs or wants, says Colin Beveridge.
Last week I sat down to enjoy a quiet half hour of live tennis from Wimbledon, and was immediately overwhelmed by the barrage of apparently vital statistics that filled my television screen at every conceivable opportunity.
Like most sporting events on television these days, the broadcasters felt that my enjoyment of the match would be seriously incomplete without knowing exactly how each point had been won or lost.
Obviously, I couldn’t be trusted to form my own judgment of how the match was going, without also seeing their impressive array of computer-generated statistics and graphics.
It seems that simply knowing the score and the result are no longer enough for us. We must also understand, in great detail, precisely how each outcome was achieved.
Once upon a time this unhealthy obsession with sporting statistics was conveniently confined to cricket, a game that is supervised by men in white coats - doesn’t that in itself say something extremely profound about the English at leisure? I digress.
For sure, there are probably millions and millions of viewers who thoroughly enjoy seeing instant database query results spewed out all over the place, but I find it rather intrusive and detrimental to my own pleasure of sporting programmes.
In this wonderful age of digital television, I often wish that I could press a function key on my TV zapper and elect out of the unsolicited onscreen analysis. Just for half an hour, please.
I suppose though that’s probably because I already have too much exposure to computer output during the week – and would like to relax with a cold beer, a good game on TV, without wondering who wrote the scoreboard software, or who supplied the hardware.
So, despite my own dependence on technology for employment, I would quite like to see a little less IT and a lot more of the action.
After all, we don’t get the same sort of data-intensive treatment during other television programmes, such as news bulletins or popular soap operas.
Can you imagine the audience response if Coronation Street or Eastenders had constant computer overlays, explaining the subtle nuances of dramatic scenes, or the cumulative history of the characters involved? The mind boggles at the prospect of sports-style “information overlays” creeping into Emmerdale… "the third sheep from the left first appeared on television six years ago, in the North Ulster semi-final of One man and his dog.”
And yet, on reflection, the problem of statistical overload is by no means confined to sports coverage on the gogglebox.
We can all find many parallels in our working lives.
Have you ever stopped to think just how much time, money and effort we all put into creating, collating and distributing business statistics and reports?
And have you ever stopped to think whether or not a lot of our precious statistics might actually be worthless? My reasons for asking these questions are quite simple – I have recognised a fundamental similarity between television sports statistics and business computing – and I think that I have spotted a real opportunity for reducing our IT costs.
These little golden nuggets of wisdom came to me as I watched Andre Agassi defeat another lesser opponent. I suddenly realised that the TV tennis statistics may well be very interesting to some viewers, but they are of absolutely no value whatsoever to the participants engaged in the match.
No matter how accurate, or timely, the numbers may be, the eventual outcome will be unaffected because the statistics will not influence the performance of the players at all – they are only interested in the score, not the analysis.
This made me realise that our businesses might be far more successful if we could become as clearly focused as the sportsmen. Like the stattos on the telly, we seem to spend far too much time gathering historical information that doesn’t actually influence our business performance.
I strongly suspect, therefore, that we can afford to discard a very large proportion of the monthly, quarterly and annual reports that we so painstakingly construct and distribute.
What we really need is 20:20 clarity of the truly important numbers that help us to keep score and show us how well our business is really doing – by which I mean the balance sheet, the profit and loss account and our budget/actual status.
One of the biggest problems, however, is that for many organisations there is quite a lengthy time lag between business activity occurring and the subsequent availability of the “scoreboard” information.
I believe that if we wish to emulate the tennis aces, by focusing exclusively on the score and our immediate performance, we need to have information as close to “real time” as possible - next week, next month, or next quarter is far too late to influence how we will act today or tomorrow.
The plain fact is that, if we really want to make a genuine difference to the success of our organisation, IT must try and eliminate as much as possible of the delay between performance and measurement.
And, we must also eliminate as much as possible of the unnecessary “noise” that distorts and disguises the vital signal feedback from our business operations.
To do this, we need to concentrate on key result areas, to identify and give due priority to those activities, reports and performance indicators that will enable us to make better business decisions, based on current, rather than historical, performance.
How can we do this? Well we can start by regularly reviewing our own IT processes and looking for any opportunities to either discard redundant business reports – or batch jobs that have passed their useful life.
Over the past 15 years I have often discovered substantial effort being wasted by IT departments generating reports that nobody actually wants or reads.
I haven’t seen anybody try to put an honest value on the effort we waste by collating and promulgating useless statistics, but I’ll bet that it runs well into billions of pounds a year worldwide.
Just think how much we could save on basic consumables such as paper or disc storage by eliminating 10% of our business reporting.
Then think how much “wasted” capacity we could probably recover in such relatively expensive resources as network bandwidth, corporate infrastructure and computer processing power.
Nowadays, the pressure is well and truly on all of us to reduce our operating costs, and I honestly believe that this is one area where we might well find some quick and easy wins – unlike most of our native tennis players…
What do you think?
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Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in July 2003