The OLAP Report

Commentary: Beyond collaboration

You can contact Morten Middelfart, the author of this section, by e-mail on morton@targit.com if you have any comments, observations or user experiences to add. Last updated on December 29, 2005.

“Would you trust a computer enough to put your life in its hands?”

Most of us would promptly answer “No” to this question, whether or not it is based on personal work/life experience or simply an intuitive reaction. Yet every day, most of us drive cars where computers compensate for human failures during emergency braking in the form of the Anti-lock Brake System, ABS. Also, few of us doubt the abilities of the flight-control computers used in commercial airliners, which in some cases don’t even allow direct pilot access to control input without going through a computer.

Having worked in the business intelligence industry for more than a decade and in the computer industry for two decades, I have experienced my share of un-trustworthy systems where human judgment was needed to over-ride a computer’s analytical findings. However, looking at many of the business intelligence implementations in organizations I see today, I can’t help but wonder if this is the right time to take computing to a new level in organizations where we start trusting computers to achieve synergy rather than just simple efficiency.

In the early days of business applications we talked about personal efficiency with applications such as Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite. Today, we are considering collaboration across the entire organization based on shared information. Soon, most of us are also going to use workflows where information becomes process centric. In this era of collaboration, the benefits of making information available and aligned with relevant tasks are obvious. However, I believe that we are missing out on an even bigger potential. In the era of collaboration organizations do the same things as they did before, but more efficiently. We are making computers work harder – but not smarter!

What I believe is missing is synergy, where both people and computers are working smarter and, as a consequence, achieve more than if the individual inputs were aggregated. If a number of individuals work together in a team, each contributing their specific talent only, then that team will raise its performance to an entirely new level. In synergic cooperation, we contribute our strengths and the strengths of others compensate for our weaknesses. All it takes to achieve synergy is to understand our strengths and weaknesses and to trust others enough to contribute where they are strong and compensate for our weakness. In the era of collaboration, I wonder why we do not apply the learning we have from synergic cooperation to the way people and computers collaborate. All it takes is a common understanding of human and computer strengths and weaknesses and trust. Ultimately, this means doing things through computers that humans would never be able to do alone.

Lessons learned from an old source of inspiration

Consider the following examples:

In aviation, fighter planes like the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are impossible to fly without computer stabilization, since they are designed to be unstable in the air. However, this instability means that these planes can fly with an increased maneuverability that could not be achieved without computers no matter how much training the pilot was offered.

During the Korean War the American F-86 Sabre faced the Russian-built MiG-15 which, in the accepted standards of the time, was a superior plane — at least in terms of engine thrust and speed. However, the F-86 Sabre had an advantage in terms of a larger cockpit, which gave the pilot more visibility than the pilot of the MiG-15. Additionally, the F-86 Sabre had hydraulic controls, which allowed the pilot to execute moves more swiftly than the MiG-15. The Americans worked these two strengths and developed tactics that employed brake flaps to take the air combat down in speed and, by teaching the F-86 pilots to work in a cycle of Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action (OODA) faster and more methodically than the MIG-15 pilots, they succeeded in improving their kill ratio significantly. One on one, it would simply be a matter of time before the F-86, with a faster OODA cycle, would win…

The US Marines have employed similar tactics on a large organizational scale. The idea here is to combine multiple skills to create highly capable units with only mission objectives rather than specific plans. This leaves the leader on the ground with a high degree of liberty to use the various techniques as he sees fit. In essence, the Marines will have multiple OODA cycles on the battlefield, that “spins” much faster than their enemy counterparts.

Since business strategizing originated in military strategy, why wouldn’t a modern day business do what its expert military counterparts do? In other words, we need to update our method of developing strategies. If we continue to use the military as a source of inspiration, we arrive at the contemporary methodologies like maneuver warfare. In maneuver warfare, there is an overall strategy. The main difference compared to traditional strategic execution is that the individual unit is more empowered and has greater autonomy. There are also more capabilities in the individual unit compared to units in traditional strategic execution. There are a wider range of skills and weaponry and infantry, artillery, and engineering, are combined in smaller units. Finally, the main strategic factor is that the leaders of the units are given mission objectives, rather than specific plans. This means that the leaders of smaller units have a clear objective to achieve, but have the flexibility to choose the tactics they see most fit as the battle unfolds. This makes the best use of the unit’s capabilities and improves its chances of reaching the overall objective.

In my opinion, organizations, much like modern aircraft, will break new barriers and achieve an agility that allows them to adapt and operate in markets much more efficiently and effectively than even the best we see today. These organizations will be the winners in the long run, simply because they will be able to continuously respond to market demands faster than the competition. They will be able to do so by methodically exploiting computer and human synergies.

Speed and quality in any action for everyone

If we accept the importance of agility, it seems logical to adopt a similar approach to that used by the US Marines. This is exactly where computers can play an important role in the leadership and management of the organizations. If we break the organization into multiple OODA cycles, rather than having a single cycle all the way from the strategic to the operational layer, we need computers to be used by employees throughout the organization to allow them to make decisions based on correct information, as well as to ensure that decisions are in line with the overall goals of the organization.

I should emphasize that a simple report or a scorecard in this context only helps with the observation phase. It shows that something is wrong, but not why things are going wrong. The weakness of predefined reporting is that the closer we get to the operational layer of the organization, the more diversity we find in the problems that need to be solved. Therefore, predefined reports and scorecards will almost always fall short when we need to find detailed answers. The solution is to provide sufficient analytical options at the orientation phase.

Furthermore, defining very specific KPIs from a centralized standpoint might deprive the employee or middle manager of the opportunity of applying his strengths and knowledge in the actions he takes to achieve the overall, more important objectives. Similarly, doing so at an organizational level might kill both motivation and the agility of the organization. To obtain synergy we should trust the employees to come up with the best solutions to achieve organizational goals. This does not mean that best practices can’t exist, but these are unlikely to be found in a centralized IT or analytical department. They should be conceived by employees with expertise and shared from there.

The provision of flexible computerized support for the observation and orientation phases broadly applied to multiple OODA decision cycles throughout an organization, is in line with the ambitions for applying business intelligence today. In many cases, organizations struggle to get information delivered in a timely and proper quality, especially when to achieve analytical flexibility and availability at the operational layer.

Previously, time was absorbed in finding information, and for some this is still a problem. In these cases, information fails the timeliness test. However, I believe that trustworthiness of information is a far bigger problem. How many times do we find ourselves questioning the information from the computer?

Learning to trust

Synergy between people comes when we succeed in two dimensions. First, we need to trust each other, and second we need to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. If we succeed in both we have the option of achieving true synergy, and the more our strengths and weaknesses are different, the greater the benefit. In the same way, we can consider the synergy we achieve with computers. Do we trust them? And do we fully understand their strengths and weaknesses to understand what they could do for us in the organization? In my opinion, we could do far better…

Intuitively, there is nothing wrong with a slightly skeptical view of anything that is output from a computer, but this mindset is exactly what leaves us stuck in a collaborative stage. Bear in mind that the difference between the collaborative and the synergic stage is that valuable time is lost in second-guessing information, but far worse than this is that we are not fully dedicated to exploiting the strengths of both parties. To recap: Computers are better than humans in calculating, remembering as well as being unbiased. People on the other hand are superior to computers when it comes to communicating, feeling and being original.

I can’t help feeling a little guilty for some of the dents in the trustworthiness of computers, as should everyone else that has worked with business intelligence systems over the years. For decades, computers have been blamed for lack of data quality as well as miscalculations in reports and so on. The right person to blame was the one that did the implementation, the report, the ones that keyed in the data, or worst of all, the one that did not perform according to the goals. But since computers can’t answer back, we picked on the weak party – shame on us…!

Of course we cannot isolate computers from a business intelligence system since the user has to trust the complete system. But the blame association has not helped to present computers as worthy of our trust. Ironic, when we recall the examples from car- and air-traffic where they do indeed make a life-saving difference.

However, I feel confident that this situation is improving. The state of the art in business intelligence is worthy of being trusted today, and more and more decisions are successfully enforced by these systems. In spite of this, we are still far from the synergy that could be obtained by a true understanding of strengths and weaknesses. And I can’t help but wonder if we are collaborating simply because we lack understanding?

Computer Aided Leadership & Management

Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them, as Albert Einstein put it. What I am proposing is to take one step back from the traditional approach to business intelligence and consider every system that improves the speed and quality of the OODA cycle for leaders, managers and employees. I call this approach Computer Aided Leadership & Management (CALM). It is essentially a discipline in which we seek the optimal fit between computers and people in any OODA cycle and in any step from observation to orientation and decision, and ultimately action.

If we project into the not-so-distant future where an organization has a business intelligence system in which any leader, manager and employee has exactly the timeliness and quality of information they need to make decisions and put them into action, why would we stop there? Would it not be a natural thing to look for systems that could perhaps make some decisions and put them into action autonomously? Please bear in mind at this stage that the systems in place have already earned our trust. If this scenario is too inconceivable, then consider systems that suggest decisions and consequently actions to people might be conceivable.

My point is that the new generation of systems will emerge once we fully trust the business intelligence systems we have in place today. These systems will gradually support more and more of the OODA cycle to the extent that some cycles will be able to run autonomously. At first glance, the benefit appears to be increased efficiency, but the true potential lies in the synergy that can be generated by wisely allocating the right mixture of human and computer input to each OODA cycle. If this is done successfully, the strengths of humans and computers will complement each other and the synergic benefits will come from developing these complementary strengths. Such organizations will achieve an unprecedented adaptability in terms of speed and focus while achieving more with fewer resources.

It may sound like pure science fiction, that computers will be able to take over one day from humans. But reality is a much more appropriate word. It should be noted that to benefit from the synergies proposed in CALM, I am not assuming that the development of artificial intelligence or other new technologies. CALM is simply a process in which we apply current technology in the OODA cycles.

Trends, such as the practice among major ERP vendors in basing their services around workflows, is a potential driver for a much smoother action phase in the OODA cycle that can easily be initiated by a computer. Additionally, access to information on the Internet presents many potential opportunities for computers to influence the decision stage. There is, therefore, plenty of scope for the innovative application of existing technologies and information sources to enhance the speed and quality of the OODA cycles.

From an evolutionary perspective, something has to come next. We should embrace the opportunities that technology has to offer.

CALM identifies two factors that can move us along this evolutionary path. The first is the trust, strength and weakness perspective on computers and humans. The second is a framework that will allow a gradual transition towards the human and computer synergy throughout the entire organization. However, whether or not one adopts the idea of CALM, few will disagree that constantly growing computing power means that there is a huge potential waiting to be released if only we trusted computers to do more…

As organizations that achieve true synergies between people and computers emerge, my guess is that this will lead to the extinction of those that harvest collaborative efficiency only, and that will signal the ending of the era of collaboration and the dawn of synergic cooperation.

A final note for those skeptical about over dependence on computers in a “CALM” future. Consider how your organization would run for a month without any computers at all.

To read more about CALM please visit www.calmbook.com.


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