As I look out of my study window I can see distant trees across an area of open land beyond my garden. Yet although I have lived here for 21 years, I have rarely walked across those fields. Now, with COVID-19 restricting where we can go, my wife and I take a walk every evening to those trees and back.
Along the way we have seen buzzards and a kestrel. We have heard stonechats and owls. We have smelled spring blossom and wild roses.
All this has been on our back doorstep yet, until now, although we have seen it, we have not looked at it. We have heard sounds but not listened. We have sensed smells, but not individual aromas.
I am inspired to reflect on those years of missed opportunities by a conversation I had a few days ago with OrbitMI’s CEO, Ali Riaz about big data in the shipping industry. He is a self-confessed story-teller and although I had prepared some questions before our call, I learned far more from hearing his life lessons than I would have done from pressing my technical queries.
He told me about his master’s thesis about consumer behaviour, which involved collecting data, collating it and analysing it. But sitting in the university statistics department, “I couldn’t feel the data,” he told me. He wanted to see, hear and smell for himself how consumers behave, so he went to one of those huge grocery stores that feed the US population and hung around in one of its aisles. To use my analogy, he had left his desk and walked across the field.
In just a short time, he saw that the middle aged knew what they wanted and took it. Older people spent time looking for the best deal. Young people were “sporadic”. As for men, “they were clueless”. And then “I brought that unstructured content to my structured data.”
It seems he was born to take an interest in how people behave. He grew up in Norway and told me about cycling to Oslo airport as a 12-year-old just to watch people leaving and arriving: the flustered husband; the irritated wife; the unruly children. He could spot who was travelling for business and who for pleasure. Over three or four years, he saw how immigration was growing.
His parents didn’t know what to make of his strange interest, but he has made a career out of it. He looks at data as more than numbers; it is information on which life-changing decisions are made.
He told me about a particularly eye-opening moment when he attended a board meeting of a large company and was astonished at how little its directors knew of their organisation. At one point, the CEO asked how many employees they had; the HR director gave one figure and the IT director gave another. One was counting how many were on the payroll, the other how many company email accounts he had to service.
These are the people who were “supposed to know things and make great decisions,” yet they didn’t even know how many staff they had. He had hoped to learn about decision-making. Instead, “Like Moses, I got to the mountain top. Unlike Moses, I didn’t see anything.”
What he took away from that experience and which I am trying to absorb is that data has to be right and it has to be complete if a company wants to be a ‘data-driven’ organisation. Otherwise it is ‘almost data-driven’ and that, he said, is terrible. Worse, “most companies we know now are ‘almost data-driven’.”
He described that state as like being in the ‘dead man’s land’ on a tennis court. I don’t play tennis so he had to explain: when a player is at the baseline, they are the least vulnerable. When at the net, they are the most aggressive. In between the two, they are in the most dangerous area of the court: ‘dead man’s land’.
It worries him that so many companies are in that zone. They need to become properly digital-driven, but how? ”That is the trillion-dollar question,” he told me, but solving it could make the difference between a company thriving, surviving, or going bust.
Like his earlier studies in the supermarket and the airport, answering that question cannot be done just by looking at the data. “The biggest challenge an organisation has is its own people,” he told me. Some will be resistant to change and others will not want to learn new systems or use new tools. So “implement some best practices and simple rules,” Ali said. And be careful of using outside experts: by the time they deliver a solution, it may already be out of date. In fact, he said, estimates suggests that two-thirds of IT projects fail.
Changing the game now is the emergence of ‘software as a service’ (SaaS), which is what he is offering at OrbitMI. It is cloud computing and its users accesses it remotely. There is no need to develop and install bespoke software and it lowers the barriers of entry to the ‘data-driven’ club. “You don’t have to develop it. You don’t have to deliver it. You don’t have to test it. It’s all done,” he said.
It reminds me again of the view from my window. I spend hours in the garden cutting the grass, weeding the borders and painting the shed. Like in-house software, I have bought it, I have to service it and I cannot easily reconfigure it. Yet it is the field beyond – for which I have no responsibility –that has delivered life-changing respite.