Thursday, December 10, 2009

A nod to Joseph Carrabis: The unfulfilled promise of online analytics

<Side Note>

I'm not sure how I landed here.

  • I had poor grades in high-school.
  • The career adviser said I shouldn't apply in computer science - I had no chance. I did anyway.
  • I loved computer science. I was a hacker - yes, it was me who shut down the mainframe to get exclusive access to finish my homework...
  • In 1986 I had to pick an internship. I picked an obscure Unix/C research project with University of Montreal while my classmates headed for IBM/Cobol and Fortran in banks and insurance - I was crazy!
  • "Unix will die" they said, "C will never pick up". But I was on the Internet in 1986 - before the Web ever existed.
  • Work - Unix sys-admin and Oracle DBA. Then HTTP & Mosaic - it was natural.
  • Logs, like any other computer system. Unix scripts to automate; soon enough the data was in Oracle.
  • Web development, web strategies, ebusiness, measurement & optimization.
  • Needed more business & management credibility - I did my MBA.
It's been over 20 years. I'm still a child in a candy store.

< End of side note >

The chasm

The Internet was built on collaboration, the early days of the Web were, as  is  was web analytics. The web analytics industry is at a crossroad. Vendors are fighting for a share of the pie, competing for the latest cool feature while trying to capture as much profits as possible from their clients and locking them down along the way. Newbies are flocking to the field, just as it was some time ago for the Web - anyone and everyone is an expert. Self proclaimed gurus ego are inflating exponentially with the number of "friends" they have.

We are craftsman. We improvise custom solutions to old problems - optimizing processes, measuring success, managing change and politics. We pride among ourselves for finding new clever ways of measuring social media and inventing new metrics nobody else understands when we can't even get five minutes with senior managers to improve their business.

We go at conferences, gang in discussion forums and Twitter to convince ourselves we are so right - we know what's wrong and how to solve it. The "outsiders" can't understand, they don't get it - so we think.

The unfulfilled promise of online analytics

Joseph Carrabis "The Unfulfilled Promise of Online Analytics - Part 1" was thought provoking and several people contributed to the conversation - it's a shame some people retracted or didn't even participate. Joseph, with his unique style and outsider perspective, published the second part. Anyone in the analytics space should read it - vendors and gurus must read it - and comment.

Joseph takes great care in being respectful and always ask for permission and opinion before quoting or talking about someone. As soon as I got his email I took a glimpse at it - thinking I would get back to it later... then I stopped everything else and read the whole thing.

There are several gems in his document:
  • Please remove my comment
    It takes a lot of honesty and tact to talk about those who requested their comments be removed...shame on them for a) not standing by their opinion and/or b) not accepting they might be wrong.
  • The Setup to Fail Syndrome
    "There is also a need to recognize what's achievable when (so people aren't set up to fail) and how to promote faster adoption of an agenda". It reminds me of a book I read: "The setup to fail syndrome", by Manzoni and Barsoux. I read that when, at a particular job, I went from "fame" to "looser" because the context changed (got a new boss). Success is also (mostly?!) a matter of context...
  • I'm playing, don't bug me
    "Management repeatedly asking difficult to solve questions results in they're being ignored by analysts until the final results are in. By that time both question and answer are irrelevant to a tactical business decision".
    "This means such institutions - which require experienced practitioners to survive - will only be able to afford low quality/low experienced practitioners to help them. This can be likened to a naval gunnery axiom: "The farther one is from a target, either the larger the shell or the better the targeting mechanism" and companies will opt for larger shells (poorly defined efforts) rather than better targeting mechanisms (experienced practitioners)." 
  • Let's find something cool to do
    "We're suppose to be solving problems. But I can't figure out what problems we're suppose to solve."
  • Act quickly, think strategically
    I loved the prognosis/diagnosis example and "Investigation takes time and only certain businesses can afford time because unless the science is working at overcoming a business obstacle, it's a cost, not a profit."

A maturity model

I'm grateful Joseph mentioned and acknowledged the usefulness of my work on the Web Analytics Maturity Model to advance the field. When Jim Sterne introduced me during the WAA annual members meeting he said "I don't know how to present St├ęphane", referring to the fact I have a technical background and recently completed my MBA... but mostly, I guess, because of my passion for the field and my willingness to share. Others have publicly or privately acknowledge my work and provided honest feedback - positive or not. Ultimately, there is no evolution without collaboration.
I asked Stephane if he believed WAMM provided a metricizable solution with universally agreed to objective measures (I told Stephane that I wasn’t grasping how WAMM becomes an "x + y = z" type of tool and asked if I’d missed something). Stephane replied "…no, you haven’t missed anything, because it is NOT a x+y=z magical/universal formula, that’s not the goal. The utmost goal is to enable change, facilitate discussion, and it’s not ‘black magic’. A formula would imply there is some kind of recipe to success. Just like we can admire Amazon or Google success and could in theory replicate everything they do, you simply can’t replicate the brains working there – thus, I think there is a limit to applying a formula (or ‘brain power’ is a huge randomized value in the formula)."
Then there are "maturity model atheists" - those "who've been there, done that"... Such positions gives very little room for discussion. My feeling is they are standing so high on their pedestal, busy working with the top organizations, that they've lost empathy with those struggling to make things happen - at their scale and with the capacity they have.
One key element to remember is "you can excel along any axis... but to be successful you need to excel evenly along all axes... so far three matrix elements - time, a lack of leadership and realism - have been identified".

"So there better be a 'right way to do it', at least as far as delivering results and being understood are concerned, because without that the industry - more accurately, the practitioners - are lost". I hope we will find this way together, honestly collaborating and being open minded, because I love what I do.

If we don't? "any industry that succumbs to promise and hype will ultimately end in disappointment".