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Analytics: unlocking insights

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Albert Einstein allegedly quipped, "Don't worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater." Perhaps, Einstein was tapping into what may have been one of the 20th century's greatest anxiety inducers-math, algebra, trigonometry, statistics and calculus. Marketers in 2013 have added a veneer of sophistication to their sales pitches. Buzzwords flitting across PowerPoint slides include equations ranging from quartics to diophanatine. Analytics as a discipline is hot.

For sales professionals and MBAs, those clouds of number talks have been greeted with the same enthusiasm as a swarm of locusts. The need to pin business decisions to data and metrics has created a fast-growing numeric environment. Even word processing systems report the number of words in a document. A departmental content management system reports the number of views a particular presentation has cataloged in an hour, day, week, month or quarter.

In a business environment where nothing seems to be set in stone, data scientists have been brought into the executive suite. Numbers are the new currency of success. The e-book best sellers include study aids for advanced mathematics. The fact that those books appeal to business executives who took only required general math underscores the escalation of what John Allen Paulos called "innumeracy." Analytics is the new black. Statistics delivers a competitive advantage. Knowledge of the dark arts of calculation delivers results in a world chock full of MBA mumbo jumbo, and marketing speak is making a comeback.

The shift

One of the most interesting knowledge management shifts I have witnessed is the bulldozer-like push in organizations for analytics: the shift from Madison Avenue recipes for making sales and the consulting firm's epic cheerleading for management change, to numbers that are more concrete. Without data, no assertion will get more than a single PowerPoint slide. Metrics, charts, graphs and Hollywood-style animations are needed to capture attention and build support for a business decision.

The problem is that in most organizations the number of individuals who have highly refined math expertise is usually small. Even in knowledge factories operated by the likes of IBM and Google, the math wizards are outnumbered by individuals with softer skills in law, public relations, sales, marketing and business development. Even in the accounting units, the bean counters work with numbers within generally well-defined domains. A change in tax law does not require venturing into the murky world of numerical procedures that cannot be calculated with today's computers or results that apply to n-dimensional probabilistic outputs. There is a difference between basic applied math and the sharp edges of multivariate adaptive regression splines.

Not surprisingly, a number of new and quite interesting products and services have become available. Those solutions are different from the old school systems that are often taught in advanced classes. You may have encountered SAS or SPSS (IBM) in statistics, or MATLAB or Mathematica in a business course or a third-year genetics class. But today's analytics bridge the Grand Canyon between basic numerical methods and the Star Trek world of number theory.

Some innovators

TIBCO, whose name is an acronym for "the information bus company," is an innovator in enterprise systems. In 2007, TIBCO paid about $200 million to acquire Spotfire, a company founded by Christian Ahlberg. TIBCO was one of the first of the enterprise solutions firms to move aggressively into the advanced analytics market. Spotfire was an important acquisition because it delivered to TIBCO a system and method that combined interactive interfaces to a wide range of data without having a programmer or specially trained technical intermediary for the executive. According to TIBCO, its infrastructure made data available in near real time, and Spotfire allowed TIBCO's licensees to explore and discover relationships, trends and outliers or anomalies with a mouse click or two.

As advanced as Spotfire is, the founder of Spotfire set up a new company to tackle the challenge of the large-scale data flows available from Web-enabled applications. Christian Ahlberg founded Recorded Future and obtained financial support from In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the U.S. intelligence community, and Google. Recorded Future tackles "Web intelligence" derived from open source content. For an organization, the Recorded Future system can be used to derive competitive intelligence from public information about businesses and from publicly accessible content such as patent applications.

Another company that is pushing the boundaries of advanced mathematics is Agilex (agilex.com). The company supports a number of U.S. government agencies, but the firm's technologies are gaining attention in the financial sector. The low-profile firm employs about 400 professionals. The firm's analytics functions are embedded in a range of applications that include health information exchanges, data visualization and discovery.

Agilex says its Phanero system "applies a sophisticated mathematical technique to dynamically discover relationships and key concepts in large volumes of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data. At the same time, Phanero's integrated Entity Extractor automatically identifies and tags entities of interest, such as persons, locations or organizations within the data. This makes it possible to analyze, map, rank and explore complex associations between relevant topics and specific objects."

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