What is “Analysis?”

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Stephen Few had a recent post, Can Computers Analyze Data?, that started: “Since ‘business analytics’ has come into vogue, like all newly popular technologies, everyone is talking about it but few are defining what it is.” Few’s post was largely a riff off of an article by Merv Adrian on the BeyeNETWORK: Today’s ‘Analytic Applications’ — Misnamed and Mistargeted. Few takes issue (rightly so), with Adrian’s implied definition of the terms “analysis” and “analytics.” Adrian outlines some fair criticisms of BI tool vendors, but Few’s beef regarding his definitions are justified.

Few defines data analysis as “what we do to make sense of data.” I actually think that is a bit too broad, but I agree with him that analysis, by definition, requires human beings.

Fancy NancyWith data “coming into vogue,” it’s hard to walk through a Marketing department without hearing references to “data mining” and “analytics.” Given the marketing departments I tend to walk through, and given what I know of their overall data maturity, this is often analogous to someone filling the ice cube trays in their freezer with water and speaking about it in terms of the third law of thermodynamics.

I’ve got a 3-year-old daughter, and it’s through her that I’ve discovered the Fancy Nancy series of books, in which the main character likes to be elegant and sophisticated well beyond her single-digit age. She regularly uses a word and then qualifies it as “that’s a fancy way to say…” a simpler word. For instance, she notes that “perplexed” is a fancy word for “mixed up.”

“Analytics” is a Fancy Nancy word. “Web analytics” is a wild misnomer. Most web analysts will tell you there’s a lot of work to do with just basic web site measurement. And, that work is seldom what I would consider “analytics.” As cliché as it is, you can think about data usage as a pyramid, with metrics forming the foundation and analysis (and analytics) being built on top of them.

Metrics Analysis Pyramid

There are two main types of data usage:

  • Metrics / Reporting — this is the foundation of using data effectively; it’s the way you assess whether you are meeting your objectives and achieving meaningful outcomes. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) live squarely in the world of metrics (KPIs are a fancy way to say “meaningful metrics”). Avinash Kaushik defines KPIs brilliantly: “Measures that help you understand how you are doing against your objectives.” Metrics are backward-looking. They answer the question: “Did I achieve what I set out to do?” They are assessed against targets that were set long before the latest report was pulled. Without metrics, analysis is meaningless.
  • Analysis — analysis is all about hypothesis testing. The key with analysis is that you must have a clear objective, you must have clearly articulated hypotheses, and, unless you are simply looking to throw time and money away, you must validate that the analysis will lead to different future actions based on different possible outcomes. Analysis tends to be backward looking as well — asking questions, “Why did that happen?”…but with the expectation that, once you understand why something happened, you will take different future actions using the knowledge.

So, what about “analytics?” I asked that question of the manager of a very successful business intelligence department some years back. Her take has always resonated with me: “analytics” are forward-looking and are explicitly intended to be predictive. So, in my pyramid view, analytics is at the top of the structure — it’s “advanced analysis,” in many ways. While analysis may be performed by anyone with a spreadsheet, and hypotheses can be tested using basic charts and graphs, analytics gets into a more rigorous statistical world: more complex analysis that requires more sophisticated techniques, often using larger data sets and looking for results that are much more subtle. AND, using those results, in many cases, to build a predictive model that is truly forward-looking.

The key is that the foundation of your business (whether it’s the entire company, or just your department, or even just your own individual role) is your vision. From your vision comes your strategy. From your strategy come your objectives and your tactics. If you’re looking to use data, the best place to start is with those objectives — how can you measure whether you are meeting them, and, with the measures you settle on, what is the threshold whereby you would consider that you achieved your objective? Attempting to do any analysis (much less analytics!) before really nailing down a solid foundation of objectives-oriented metrics is like trying to build a pyramid from the top down. It won’t work.

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2 Comments


  1. Pingback The Most Meaningful Insights Will Not Come from Web Analytics Alone | Gilligan on Data by Tim Wilson

  2. Odd that the interceptions coulmn goes from low to high, while all the others are ordered high to low visually this is deceiving as at first glance it appears that the top two quarterbacks have the fewest interceptions, when actually the opposite is true.This seems to be the only place the scales are reversed. I love the way you can visualize stats in context of one another though!

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