Atmospherics: Exit Your Bubble

A member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars stands at attention during the ceremony of the 151st Memorial Day Observance Ceremony held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, V.A., May 27, 2019. (US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kelly L. Timney)

Standing in front of a dusty wall-sized map in late 2005 in West Baghdad with an intelligence officer and a civil affairs officer, the three of us realized the pieces of our intelligence picture didn’t fit together. The intelligence summaries we got from higher headquarters weren’t matching the debriefs our small unit patrol leaders were giving. Moreover, the local political leaders complained of problems that ran counter to the problems we were tasked to solve. We started to believe that the intelligence picture we’d been given – and which we’d been trained to develop – was faulty, and dangerously leading planning to the wrong operations. Though we had some of the most sophisticated equipment and processes for gathering, analyzing and disseminating information, we were going into the wrong towns on the advice of the wrong people for the wrong reasons. It had to stop.

In 2005 the US military began to re-discover truths about insurgencies and counterinsurgencies it’d long forgotten or even fully ignored. Successful counterinsurgencies from Algeria to Malaya and even Northern Ireland stressed the need to gather what became known as Atmospherics – personal local sentiments about the conflict going on all around us from a political, economic and social perspective. As Counterinsurgency (COIN) theory became COIN doctrine in the coming years US forces began to change their strategies and tactics to ensure that more face-to-face contact and discussion with locals was included in intelligence assessments. These interactions provided a layer of reality and practicality to the whole process – where time and location analysis of improvised explosive device (IED) detonations painted one picture, talking to the local shopkeepers about their concerns and motivations painted another. Once we started regularly talking to those shopkeepers, our intelligence picture became much more accurate. The funny thing was, we were already there in front of their shops every day – what was so hard about walking up a few times a month and having a chat?

In 2011 after leaving nearly a decade in the Army, I read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart which had just been released. In the book he offers a survey that purports to identify whether or not you live in a bubble – meaning a social circle that excludes a lot of the world around us. Murray, knowing that most of his readers would be upper middle to upper class with advanced degrees, designed the survey to prove a point: cultural elites in the US don’t know how the rest of America lives nor do they understand why most Americans do the things they do. It identifies things that characterize life for the majority of whites (Murray constrained his study racially for a few reasons) in the US and checks to see how familiar the reader is with them. You come away realizing that you thought you knew a lot about all Americans, but the reality is that you don’t- and that creates blind spots.

Being a newly minted civilian with more than a few experiences in foreign conflict, Murray’s points in his book hit me hard. I’d worked with a good cross-section of young to middle aged American men from all over the US, including recent immigrants from Asia and Africa, and I felt like I knew their interests and concerns, but I was coming from a different bubble. Americans then seemed no more focused than they are today on the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (which was our whole lives), and the 2007 financial crisis only really hit those servicemembers who’d just bought homes. So I was in the middle of moving from one bubble to another – all-volunteer military to upper middle class. It concerned me – maybe I really didn’t know what my country looked like, what it did or cared about. It meant the level of understanding I had about my surroundings was low – and most of my life experiences up until that point told me that this isn’t good. I read the news, I talked to people on social media- but the counterinsurgency truths about Atmospherics – about having regular face-to-face interaction with the population – told me that none of this was enough. What could I do to get a better sense of what’s happening in my own country?

Not long after reading the book I moved to Northern New Jersey and stumbled upon the answer. Weeks after unloading the moving truck I walked down the street and joined a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post. At that time it was filled almost completely with Vietnam veterans – men who’d literally inherited the post from their Second World War veteran fathers and who opened the bar every day for members and their friends. They brought me in enthusiastically and before I knew it, I was elected an officer of the post and joined them for monthly meetings, fall and spring cleanups, holiday parties, the annual Memorial Day parade and Super Bowl party. What I began to become regularly exposed to was a group of people outside my social, economic and political bubble. I built relationships with them over draft beers. I attended wakes and funerals for members, talked about chemotherapy with guys undergoing it, and learned about their viewpoints through actual discussion year in and year out. And it began to affect my own viewpoint because it became part of my life.

I never realized it at the time, but I’d actually carried out what Robert Putnam (another political scientist on the other side of the political spectrum from Murray) had recommended in Bowling Alone – reinvesting in local civic organizations in order to bridge the divides we find all over the US today. The interesting thing, for me at least, was how painless it was to do so. I show up to VFW meetings and events because I want to – not because I feel like I have to. They provide not just a sense of community – but real community – actual support when you need it. If you end up in the hospital, the post finds out and contacts your family to see if how they can help. But in the meantime I get to hear from friends outside my bubble what they think and feel and care about – and that means my overall situational awareness about life is better.

The ironic lesson of the success of COIN Atmospherics from 2005-2008 was the simplicity and obviousness of it – all we had to do to improve the accuracy of our assessments was get out of our comfort zone and talk to the people we saw nearly every day on the street and contrast that to what we were seeing in our analysis and news-watching. The lesson of my VFW experience has been the ease of building that outreach into my activities every month. And as far as work is concerned, CI Reichel told us two weeks ago how it can improve your business. The question for any reader is how each person can build a bubble exit into their own activity patterns – and how much better their picture of their surroundings will become.

This post first appeared in The Quartermaster Newsletter on 29 July 2019. Read more and sign up here.

Overcoming Weakness: The Veteran Network

Photo from WordPress

In the 1998 action film Ronin, Robert De Niro and Jean Reno star as a couple of former intelligence officers hired into a team to track down a mysterious package that’s wanted by both Irish terrorists and the Russians. At a couple of points throughout the film, as De Niro’s character Sam and Reno’s character Vincent end up shooting up multiple French cities amidst high speed car chases, they each get a little help from seemingly uninvolved bystanders who turn out to be active intelligence agents from their respective former employers. When Sam gets help in Marseille from an apparent US intelligence officer and returns to the car, Vincent asks: “A friend of yours?” Sam says, “Yeah, we went to high school together.” At another point, Vincent gets a hand from a different bystander, and repeats the quote back to Sam.

Ronin came out when I was a freshman in college – so prior to, throughout my Army career and even after, I always thought that having an “alumni network” from my time as a Green Beret would be one of the lasting benefits of going through selection and the Q Course and from deploying on an ODA. I figured I’d get out and there’d be this preexisting group of dudes who all served and we’d help each other out professionally and maybe get drinks from time to time. On occasion, me and my civilian business associates might be in a tight spot – and from out of nowhere a bearded guy would drop in and say “I got you covered” and take off. Problem solved. My coworkers would ask “A friend of yours?” And I’d say “Yeah, we went to high school together.”

Man was I wrong.

Green Berets – and maybe even just Army veterans in general – struggle with networking. We have a blue collar mentality that pridefully insists on doing things the hard way – like not advancing yourself through your network but by the quality of your work and the reputation that comes with it. Culturally we hate touting our achievements and are distrustful of many who do. We’re terribly judgmental about each other and ourselves, and avoid associating with anyone considered a low performer, an outcast, or a spotlight-grabber. Add to all this the avoidance of internet publicity that comes with classified work, and you have an entire community that’s missed the wave of professional networking enabled by social media that the rest of the world had ridden for a decade. What I found when I got out were former Green Berets here and there, off on their own with only their loosely dispersed tiny groups of guys they served with – that they maybe kept in touch with.

This meant I had a significant part of my past and my community not represented in a network – and I knew that wasn’t right. Not long after got out of the Army I learned from a great teacher that much of the power of one’s network is found in the ability to connect two or more distinct, separate groups of people (I think it’s known as “associative power”). Near the end of grad school I looked at my network and found that I had a very small number of active Army contacts and a large number of graduating Supply Chain and Marketing grad students. My network wasn’t strong, but it should have been. I’d spent nearly a decade working all over the world in and around conflicts at the center of the world’s attention with some amazing people, and didn’t have much to show for it in my associations.

So I decided to fix that. I now have hundreds of not only Green Beret but other Special Operations Forces (SOF) and General Purpose Forces (GPF) associations that have made my network much more valuable and useful. Here’s how I did it.

1. First I took the data I had – the Green Berets I knew – and asked them if they knew any Green Berets in my area.

2. Next I combined that info with Green Berets I could find online – and with the help of some newfound civilian connections – got a bunch of them to gather at a bar downtown one night.

3. From there this group found that we have even more contacts in common just from discussing our backgrounds and work. At this point the new local network now looked like 10 strong connections (most of whom I’d gotten drinks with downtown) and 20 weak connections (mostly guys who couldn’t make it but with whom I had email and/or LinkedIn contact). 

4. From there the network grew very slowly just from staying in contact with these individuals and meeting their friends and associates – and this is often where the story ends for most of us. But eventually I met up with a few more former Green Berets who were strongly motivated to build up the community locally. One had the idea to start up a private Slack workspace so that we could all connect in a way that we were comfortable with. From this I got an idea of what this loose group of former GBs was looking for from a professional network – this included advice, industry connections, job leads and help interviewing or with resumes. The Slack workspace has probably rocketed our connections number up by an order of magnitude.

5. At the same time I reached out to the larger SOF veteran community and got involved with Elite Meet – a bunch of former SOF from all branches as well as fighter pilots – who were already doing this same thing on their own and even seeking 501(c)3 status and fundraising for in-person events where they got these transitioning veterans in front of executives that want to hire them. Elite Meet was providing things for Green Berets that the Green Beret community couldn’t – a massive improvement on the capability of our community.

6. The local NYC group of GB veterans decided we should formalize our thing – and so we submitted to the Special Forces Association’s national headquarters a proposal to start a Manhattan chapter, focused on professional networking.

7. The formalization and credibility that comes with it attracted more internal and external contacts – contacts with job leads and services that might be able to help former GBs on their own professional paths.

8. My NYC group is now helping repeat this strategy in Washington, DC.

This whole process was spread out over 4 years – but steps 4-8 mostly have taken place in the past 11 months. There are a few lessons learned that helped make the process work along the way:

Lesson 1: Find your G-Chiefs: Those “newfound civilian connections” – people that never served but who act as connections to their industries and professional contacts – have been absolutely critical to success. They bring a different perspective (both on GBs and what we believe our strengths are), lots of connections and knowledge we usually can’t find in our own community, and often a different type of personality than we’re used to. Here’s the non-obvious point about these folks: Like G-chiefs in both Pineland and other conflict zones, the best ones aren’t helping us out of a sense of duty or kindness per se – they’re involving us because they think we have something valuable to bring their own lives and careers.

Lesson 2: Formalization may be more important than you think. My new core group of GBs seemed to get more traction talking to new internal and external contacts once we could say that we were “SF Association Chapter 58 from NYC” and not just a few drinking buddies. Slapping on a name, a charter, a website and an Instagram account can do a lot to bring more people into the fold.

Lesson 3: Persistence Alone is Omnipotent. Around Step 3 I hosted a dinner-meetup event in Washington DC for 12 former GBs – and only 3 showed up (one of whom is actually one of our civilian connections). Most of the guys who couldn’t make it had last minute work or family obligations come up, but I was still surprised and a little demoralized. It’s tough getting a bunch of former GBs, now off on their own, to join up to do anything. But it took continuing to try to grow the network that got this group to a critical mass. 

American veterans our age make up a very, very small percentage of Americans in general, and we all know how few SOF folks there are in the military. But the strength and value of our shared experiences, training and culture provide us with huge benefits that in many ways are best realized as a loose group or network. The more we can create the bonds and associations we should have had, the better off all of us will be as individuals, leaders, and citizens.

This post first appeared in The Quartermaster Newsletter on 17 May 2019

The Standard Operating Procedure: a Green Beret Practice for Dads

Do you ever get the feeling that the thing you’re doing at that moment, you’ve done at least once before? Do you find yourself trying to remember how you did it, so you can do it again? This happens to me yearly now when I’m doing a seasonal task – packing for vacation in the summer, raking leaves or chopping wood in the fall, shoveling snow in the winter and firing up the grill in the spring. Years ago I found myself doing these tasks and feeling like I’d learned a trick or a shortcut last year but I couldn’t remember what it was. When you’re pressed for time that’s a bad feeling to have.

The reality of life today is that we have a lot of technical tasks we need to accomplish – even in the very-human realm of fathering. Another truth is that our brains are not designed to hold so much information and make it available step by step – especially for tasks we only do a few times a year or relatively infrequently.

But this is one of those times when I should know better – Standard Operating Procedures get beat into your head from the first day you show up for work in the Army. Much if not all of my time leading an infantry platoon or a Special Forces ODA between deployments was spent developing, capturing, practicing and revising all those actions we’d have to do when we headed overseas. Since every group of individuals is different – everyone’s experiences in life shape them in a separate way – every team’s going to have their own way of doing things. But it’s critical that every member of the team is of the same mind when in combat – that everyone knows what to expect from each other, especially when being shot at and team members are most at risk for doing something erratic.

A Standard Operating Procedure is defined as an established way of doing something that’s supposed to be followed in carrying out a specific operation or situation. For an individual who’s never used one knowingly before, probably the best introductory example you can find is in an instruction manual – like for a baby’s carseat. That manual’s going to tell you how to strap down the seat securely in your car, how to position the seat for best effect and then how to put your baby in it for use. It’s not meant to be interesting reading – it’s supposed to tell you how to do something right. So long as you have the manual handy you should never have a problem knowing how to do that task.

Want proof SOPs are used in the military? Ask any current or former servicemember with an infantry background to explain Battle Drill 1A for you. Don’t be surprised when the nearest flat surface becomes a makeshift sand table and you’re seeing a salt shaker and a pepper shaker maneuvering on a bottle of ketchup. How many other organizations of hundreds of thousands of people all know how to do the same exact thing the same exact way? A Battle Drill is a standardized form of an SOP that is so critical to the way a military fights that its procedure is dictated to all. Which is also usually a pretty good sign it’s effective.

What I propose to you is to make small manuals for yourself in order to first accomplish the task right next time, but more importantly learn continuously. In our case here the SOPs we develop will look like checklists – one-man SOPs for getting something done right with a minimum of wasted time, effort, frustration and mistakes.

The next time you as a father undertake a multi-step task (I recommend one you find yourself undertaking on a weekly basis), bring along a piece of paper and a pen. See if you can describe the task as a series of steps, one after the other. There’s probably a way you prefer doing it, or an end-state you’re going for – make that explicit. Think about the next time you’ll have to do that task and how you’d like yourself to approach it. Take that sheet once it’s done and make it available for next week (I like to type it out & make it available on my phone). Then use it the next time you need to complete that task.

Here’s an example of an SOP I use a few times a year in the fall:

Echo PB-250LN Power Blower Startup (Starting Cold Engine):

– 1. Move Stop Switch away from the STOP position.

– 2. Move Throttle Position Lever midway between idle and full throttle positions.

– 3. Move choke to COLD START (closed) position.

– 4. Pump Purge Bulb until fuel is visible and flows freely In the clear fuel tank return line. NOTICE: Recoil starter: Use short pulls – only 1/2 – 2/3 of rope for starting. Do not allow the rope to snap back in. Always hold the unit firmly.

– 5. Place the unit on a flat, clear area. Firmly grasp throttle handle with left hand and rapidly pull recoil starter handle/rope until engine fires, or maximum 5 pulls.

– 6. Move choke lever to RUN position, and if necessary, restart engine. Note: If engine does not start with choke in RUN position after 5 pulls, repeat instructions 3 – 5.

– 7. After engine warms up, gradually depress throttle trigger to increase engine RPM to operating speed. Note: Allow engine to warm up 3 minutes before use

I pulled a lot of these steps right from the actual power blower manual, simplified them, typed them out and put them on my phone. It makes my life a hell of a lot easier.

SOP rules:

1. Use it: These things only work if you use them.

2. Have it handy: This is easier than you think, and it’s the thing that makes Rule #1 possible. Chances are if you’re clothed, you have a computer with near-instantaneous information recall in your pocket right now. Hell these days you’re probably reading this on it. You can store your SOPs on Dropbox and pull them up immediately on your smartphone if you label them right. As a failsafe I like to print mine out and have a hard copy too.

3. Keep it simple: In his book Checklist Manifesto, surgeon Atul Gawande says you should keep checklists between 5 and 9 tasks. This is to ensure you’ll actually use them and that pulling one up doesn’t become a task in itself.

4. Update it – and think about “future you”. This practice is about getting good at something and staying good at something while requiring minimal effort. Start with a first draft and actually use it – the more you use it the more you’ll see how you can simplify and streamline the process, partly because you’ll use it when you have different mindsets. Productivity experts Joe Buhlig and Mike Schmitz like to talk a lot about framing things for “future me” by considering how they’ll approach a task in the future – in their case they usually mean naming things very specifically so that there’s no confusion about what they wrote.

So how does this relate to being a dad? First, for me, it’s about time. It’s the scarcest of resources and it’s always running out – capturing the most efficient and effective way to accomplish something routine helps me get some time back in the future. It also helps me prevent missed steps and mistakes which can cost a lot more time. Second, it’s about internalization and improvement – one thing I’d like to pass on to my kids by way of example is an aptitude for diligence and steady improvement. I lack those things naturally – I tend to dive right in and get lost in a problem or task but it’s a frustrating way to live your life day to day. I’d rather give my kids a way to break out of that (see the Carolla PragerU link below on Internalization). Finally it’s a great way to communicate how to accomplish a task to someone else – have you ever had to tell your wife how to do something you normally do when you’re not at home? You can pass your SOPs to others in order to better communicate steps.

Adam Carolla on Internalization: https://www.prageru.com/video/change-your-life/

Joe Buhlig & Mike Schmitz on Checklist Manifesto: https://joebuhlig.com/16-the-checklist-manifesto-by-atul-gawande/

Joe Buhlig on Creating Checklists: https://joebuhlig.com/4/

Work the System – an interesting big-picture book about how SOPs can govern your life. Very cool: https://www.alibris.com/Work-the-System-The-Simple-Mechanics-of-Making-More-and-Working-Less-Sam-Carpenter/book/11212019?matches=54

Harvard Business Review on the Types of Checklists: https://hbr.org/2010/02/draftwhat-sort-of-checklist-sh.html

Derek Sivers’ Notes on Checklist Manifesto: https://sivers.org/book/ChecklistManifesto

Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande: https://www.alibris.com/The-Checklist-Manifesto-How-to-Get-Things-Right-Atul-Gawande/book/11624578?matches=204

Triangle As Defensive Posture for A Pause in Combat

From Field Manual 7-8
From Field Manual 7-8

Today Steve Bryant guest-hosted the Why Is This Interesting Newsletter and listed out applications and misapplications of the triangle in different contexts. Talking with Chris Papasadero about the triangle most common in a Green Beret’s world – the patrol base, Chris had this to say:

As an 18B Weapons Sergeant, my job was to make sure that the team was tactically proficient and knew how to operate all of the weapons organic to a U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment (ODA).

I look at the world in overlapping triangles. They actually represent cones of fire – the three-dimensional space a particular weapon can cover with fire – but for the purposes of laying out good defensive positions and describing them simply, we use a lot of triangles to build ‘overlapping fields of fire’. The idea here is that in a small team made up of individual riflemen, they can cover large areas of territory by moving their rifle up and down and left and right (elevate and traverse, respectively.)

In a defensive position – say a platoon of soldiers creeping through the jungle – one of the most efficient ways to lay a team of riflemen out is in a triangle; in this way you can efficiently cover 360º of defensive perimeter, using overlapping fields of fire – and still have space in the middle to eat, check the map, etc.

In the U.S. military we especially like the triangle because it provides the opportunity to bring two ‘crew served’ weapons  (machine guns) to bear on an enemy no matter what direction they approach from.

When I set up this triangle, I’m looking not only for ways to maximize the number of crew served weapons I can bring to bear at any given time, I’m having my soldiers line up in such a way that there’s overlapping fields of fire all the way around the triangle.

What you do in a triangle: from Lightning Press’s SUT Smart-book
What you do in a triangle: from Lightning Press’s SUT Smart-book

Are Green Berets born, not made?

You might remember it – in Episode 3 of the HBO series Band of Brothers, Private First Class Albert Blithe struggles with trauma and fear amidst the battle to take the town of Carentan. He even suffered from hysterical blindness during the battle and after overcoming it was shot a few days after the battle in another firefight. There’s a pretty powerful discussion in the episode between Lieutenant Ronald Speirs, who seems to have no fear at all, and Blithe who was literally incapacitated by it. Speirs counsels Blithe on how to approach mortality in combat, and that the right outlook and demeanor are critical for success in battle. But with the two polar opposites of military bearing talking to each other, you still get the sense that some people are just better suited to the extreme stress of combat than others – and that those better suited perform at a much higher level than the rest.

Some years ago researchers took the blood of SERE students in training, among which US Army Special Forces candidates were well represented. The takeaway was that Neuropeptide Y, an amino acid neuropeptide whose presence has been associated with resilience, recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and with mitigating fear responses, is inordinately found in high amounts among Green Berets during stressful training events. The belief is that the chemical allows individuals to perform better under extreme stress.

This leads to the question – if candidates have a lot of Neuropeptide Y, would they be more likely to be successful in training and operations as a Green Beret? And do those without much Neuropeptide Y not often make it to an ODA, or perform poorly under pressure if they do?

I think the truth is that it’s a story of nature vs. nurture. Some people naturally handle stress better than others. They keep a clearer head when things get crazy or they regain a sense of stability after a shock faster than most. There are others who don’t have the natural ability – they lack the chemicals – so they have to learn how to handle stress in other ways. Your average ODA often holds a wide variety personality types among the 12 members – and if you actually tested everyone who’s earned a Green Beret, I think you’d find both those with higher levels of Neuropeptide Y, and those with lower levels who had to learn resiliency where it came natural to others.

My belief is also that the nature vs. nurture binary applies to proclivities, drives and interests as well. Some people are attracted to more stressful situations than others and might be more likely to try out for jobs like those in SF. These might include firefighters, other SOF or infantry, fighter pilots, and other professions where performance under extreme stress is a big part of the job. So maybe my hypothesis is that stress responses (either given or learned) aren’t just a discriminator for Green Beret candidates, but the stressful situations themselves attract those with well-developed stress responses.

So what’s still unclear to me is if an individual is born with a set level of Neuropeptide Y production or modulation, or if that level can be affected by training. Either way, stress responses can be improved with focused effort – and many other factors like determination, focus, patience and discipline are likely bigger discriminators for who becomes a Green Beret and who doesn’t.

More on Neuropeptide Y presence in military subjects:

Think Like a Green Beret: Don’t Stress by Mark Miller

Neuropeptide Y: A stressful review by Florian Reichmann and Peter Holzer

Research shows why some soldiers are cool under fire by Julie Steenhuysen

Duties & Responsibilities for AI on the battlefield: Thoughts

There’s some thought out there on how AI can make armed groups more effective, but what problems will it help us solve? And what’s the right way to use it?

Chris Sauceda and I wrote a short piece on the Mad Scientist blog about how to think about AI on the battlefield. Some of the most successful commanders in history had an all-knowing chief of staff that made command and control possible in complex situations – and we recommend that the Army consider AI in this light.

Tyler Cowen’s thoughts on how to employ AI in direct competition are important going forward, and we address that briefly too.

Ian Kersey and Luke Shabro at Mad Scientist helped out a lot – their blog is probably the best spot to find original thinking on emerging tech in land forces contexts.

Rules to live by: a glimpse of the value of the NCO

Some months back I transcribed a xeroxed list of “rules to live by” handwritten by a famous Ranger Command Sergeant Major. It’s gotten some traction in military & veteran circles, and it’s a pretty honest look at some of the details that good frontline managers focus on in their jobs.

It’s inspiring.

The list can be found at Ars Ductus here:  https://arsductus.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/purdys-rules-to-live-by/

What Are Analytics?

What are analytics?

I’ve worked in information tech for five years now and when I hear the word analytics, I think I know what it means. If I had to explain analytics to someone, I’d say it’s when you use a tool to examine data in order to find insights – patterns or trends – that help you explain something or help make a decision. The tool that first comes to my mind is SPSS – simply because that’s what I’ve had experience using and what I’ve had customers use.

But this question – What are analytics? – is hard to answer definitively because there are many different kinds of tools for many different kinds of analyses, using many different kinds of data for many different purposes. I also think that because today we’re talking about software, that capabilities and how they’re delivered are always changing, being improved, and being used for new things, so much that the idea of analytics itself is always under construction.

In any case, there a few other stabs at what analytics means:

  • Wikipedia: “Analytics is the discovery, interpretation, and communication of meaningful patterns in data.”
  • Competing on Analytics: “The extensive use of data, statistical & quantitative analysis, explanatory and predictive models, and fact-based management to drive decisions and actions.”
  • Gartner: “analytics leverage data in a particular function process (or application) to enable context specific insight that is actionable”
  • Online Analytics: “using existing business data or statistics to make informed decisions”
  • John Jordan: “uses statistical and other methods of processing to tease out business insights and decision cues from masses of data” (Ch. 29)

(I think I like Wikipedia’s best)

Examples of analytics aren’t hard to find though. A business intelligence tool like Cognos or Oracle BI (or a similarly capable and structured dashboard) that provides reports on historical or current data and allows the user to explore that data is one kind of analytics called Descriptive. Other tools like the aforementioned SPSS that do forecasting, modeling and rule based systems are called Predictive – and add to that optimizations, some forms of Machine Learning and recommendations engines and you have Prescriptive. Finally when you add things like machine reasoning then you get to the “cognitive computing” realm, which is where it ends for the vast majority of us today.

One thing I like to consider is that what so many people do with analytics software today they could technically do with a pencil and paper – and a lot of time. It’s the relatively low cost today to buy the analytics tools and ability to do a lot at once, and quickly, that makes these definitions the way they are today.

So what might all this mean for you? If you use a Fitbit or other similar wearable device, you’re likely to see analytics about your steps today, or how many swims you’ve completed over time. If you’re an accomplished Excel user, you might be turning spreadsheets into newer and more purpose-built visualizations that allow you to better understand the information and pick out anomalies – those are both analytics driven. The point is that wherever data lives, analytics can be valuable to help find relevant insights.

Photo by Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash