TDWI Conference Wrap: Focus on the Human Side

The human side of BI poked its head over the data last week at TDWI’s World Conference in Las Vegas.

By Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP

The doctor says most people with your type of cancer live just another seven months. You declare that you’re not “most people;” you might live a long time, finding bell curve’s delicate tail.

If death and data are inevitable, what matters is how you respond. A variety of responses to data--technological and human--showed up at last week’s TDWI World Conference in Las Vegas.

As it happened, writer and scientist Stephen Jay Gould lived 20 years more. He fit the profile of those who lived much longer than the average--an insight he might have missed had he relied on a bad dashboard design, as businesses do all the time on only slightly less serious issues.

“Too often we smear a thick layer of gaudy makeup on top of data to impress,” dashboardist Stephen Few said in his Sunday session, Dashboards for Immediate Insight. Few’s parade of what not to do: dials that give no context; polished metal-like bar charts that obscure the data; stoplight icons that signal nothing; plus a dozen more examples. He points out a cute but useless graphic in the corner of one vendor’s attempt and says, “You’d love it for a minute, and after a day you’d hate it.”

Behind any dashboard is the engine, which starts with data modeling, Steve Hoberman’s obvious passion. “I love data modeling. I do it all the time. In fact, when I eat in a restaurant, I model the menu,” he declared at the start of his beginner’s class on Tuesday.

Hoberman takes his class on a metaphorical mountain hike: first boots land on normal form, and up to the peak at fifth. “It’s even possible to normalize to the point that all your data is not null,” he says.

Lynn Pettis, charged with building a data warehouse at the Colorado Springs School District 11 had made sketches; Hoberman’s class demonstrated the need for him to start from scratch. “I’m learning what I’m not learning. There should be another three of us here. For instance, my boss should have been in the data governance session,” said Pettis.

Most attendees chosen at random offered similar thoughts about the conference’s value.

Software development manager Douglas Harel says his job at Virginia Housing Development Authority recently shifted to include data warehousing, and after the conference he had to design a new data warehouse. Without the education he got at the conference, he said, “I couldn’t have done it… You can read a book, but a book isn’t interactive.”

IT technical delivery manager Jennifer Ward of Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield praised “The Human Side of IT Governance” for its attention to trust and the widespread tendency to feel ownership of data.

But even in data modeling come problems on the human side. Hoberman tells about one meeting to launch a data warehouse project: Most IT invitees showed up, but none from business. Six months later, progress was so little that the project might as well have died, Hoberman testified.

What can you do? Start by zeroing in on questions that demand answers, says Larissa T. Moss in her session “Business Intelligence Roadmap.” Release software every few months, creating an evolving and expanding environment of integrated data.

Jonathan Koomey’s Thursday morning keynote also raised the human issue: Sorry, Wrong Number challenged BI workers to always keep an eye on the big picture. Be on guard for false and flimsy “facts.” Always question! “I guarantee that if you focus on the human side of BI, you will be more effective,” he said. Attendees responded with thoughtful silence.

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Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP is a freelance business and technology writer based in Point Richmond, CA. He can be reached at ted@biwrite.com.