Analytics and Abstraction

Analytics and Abstraction

It is easy to be fooled by the quote and think that, of course, we would not possibly think that the deaths of millions could be less important than the death of one. However, turn on any news service, open any paper, and you will see this to be the case. At the time of writing, Myanmar is going through significant turmoil, but how real is it to you and me?

Stalin knew that context was everything; when people have a personal connection to an event or subject, they “feel” it more. When they do not have any connection, it becomes something they can read about and move on.

Think about these two stories; “There’s been a train crash, and 20 people have died.” or “There’s been a train crash and my wife, Mary, was killed.” Which story has more of an emotional connection with you?

So what does this have to do with Analytics?

The process of Analysis is an abstraction; it adds “distance” between the realities of a situation and the consumer. Ask yourself how many metrics you have in your organisation that management looks at but don’t support the activities. Almost every day in my dealings with companies, I hear a similar story “[Insert name here] cherry picks work and gets all the praise”. This is the impact of abstractions. The metrics get between the management layers and the truth, even worse, just like Stalin, an air gap is forming, isolating the business from its Analytics. The value of analytics comes not just when it is aligned to the goals, but now we want Analytics also to be able to direct and steer our businesses. If we do not actively seek to make the changes to stop our Analytics from becoming completely abstract, we risk making Analytics our Stalin.

Power BI is all about the democratisation of data; in fact, for me, that was one of the first terms I learnt in my Power BI journey (thanks Rob Collie), the act of breaking down the data silos and bringing in a whole new way of working is transformative, but we must make sure it isn’t another “Storming the Winter Palace”, the nature of disruptive technology is that people can use it not just for good, but also for evil. Whatever your views are on Communism, I think we can all agree that the “vision” of 1917 was dead by the time Stalin took over.


To avoid abstractions, you need to make sure you have encouraged a culture of cross-pollination of ideas not just across your departments but vertically within them. Are the leaders of your organisation increasingly isolating themselves and using metrics to feed and support their views, or are they opening doors and encouraging collaboration and open discussion? The enemy of abstraction is the personal touch. If you consider the Train Crash again, would you be more supportive of changing a section of the track to make it safer? Would the personal impact have a greater impact on you? It should do if we have made a personal connection. We may not be there yet.

In his 2007 study, “Putting a face to a Name”, Adam Grant found that personal investment from teams makes them perform better. They provided teams of fundraisers in an outbound call centre with some motivation (there was also an unmotivated control. Researchers introduced group One to the people their fundraising would benefit, and A manager read the other a story about how the fundraising helped someone. Amazingly there was a difference, the people who personally met someone who benefited saw a near 150% increase in their weekly fundraising amount compared to the control group (no changes) and the group whom managers only told about the benefits. Adam repeated the study with Lifeguards and found that those given the more personal side about the impact of their lifesaving work were more attentive.

The lesson is clear people respond better to personally investing in something, so if you want your metrics to go in the right direction, you need to think about how to break down the abstraction. Think to yourself, “How can I put a face to this”. After all, we are all human beings, and we all like to feel connected to people and those around us.


So Analysis, if left unchecked, will lead to abstraction, and this is where the danger begins. The take-home message is clearly “Don’t be like Stalin”, encourage a culture of openness and support and develop the ideas within your organisation. To finish, 3M has a culture of fostering intelligence and ideas. In 1968 Spencer Silver made a mistake while developing an extra-strong adhesive; the test sample he came up with was just not strong. In fact, it was just plain weak. In many companies, Spencer may have been fired, reprimanded at the very least, admonished. At 3M, he wrote up his failure, and he shared it with his colleagues. Two years later, Arthur Fry was having problems with bookmarks in Choral Music books when he came across Spencer’s adhesive. From those humble beginnings, Post It Notes were born.

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