WhereScape marathon man runs with/without data

If you're into lifestyle running, if you run for fitness, for happiness, or just to get out of the house, you're used to running without data. 

Running is something you just go out and do, usually without thinking too much about it. 

Last weekend, for example, I participated in a 10K run. No big deal: I just went out and did it – I didn't think about training, I didn't think about pacing myself until the last kilometre, I didn't even have to have a running plan. I went out and ran at my own pace and leisure. 

Which is precisely my point: in business and in life, sometimes it's okay to run without data. 

What does it mean to “run without data?” It's like this: when I'm running for fun, I'm not monitoring my heart-rate, I'm not thinking about my running cadence, or about my weight – for example, is that extra kilogram I'm packing going to cost me an extra 2.5 seconds every kilometer? I'm thinking about other stuff: my family, my work, the trees in the Domain, and so on. This is running without data. Running with data is primarily an issue if you want to achieve more, if you're frustrated with not achieving as much as you know you're capable of, or if you really want to meet specific goals or objectives. 

When you're training for a marathon, metrics such as distance, weight, and cadence become so important that you basically plan your in-race strategy around them. When I was training for the New York Marathon, for example, I had to change my running style to increase the number of strides per minute. I had to get the distance just right so that I could run for multiple hours, but I had to get the speed just right, too, because speed is a function of length of stride and strides per minute. (I had to get a bunch of other stuff just right, as well – including my weight).  Guess what? Data is absolutely essential when you're trying to do something like this. You really can't just wing it. 

Believe it or not, most businesses are still running without data. 

Businesses, too, have their heart-rate monitors and GPSs. But because they treat data as a byproduct of their business operations, not as something that's core to what they are doing, they're fundamentally misusing them. From a business perspective we understand a “byproduct” as something that's ancillary to what you do and what you are. But data shouldn’t be something that's produced and then discarded; it's something that's an active material part of business operations. 

Because they don’t care about it, most businesses have only a passing interest in data – they look at reports or graphs from a single system like finance. On top of this, they update it at a glacial pace: it gets refreshed nightly, at best, but – more likely – once a week, or even monthly. This is what comes of treating data as a byproduct. The rub is that reporting and analysis is no longer something you do at the end of the business day, at the end of the quarter, or at the close of the fiscal year; it's something you must now make available to people as they work.

Whether you're running a business or a marathon, you need to be able to monitor your performance in the Now and you also need to collect data for historical analysis. Historical analysis permits you to rise above the Now and gives you perspective – a kind of transcendence – with respect to what has happened. Perspective of this kind can enrich your tactical decision making and is absolutely essential for strategic planning. And this is how businesses have traditionally used data. But what's happening in the Now is absolutely essential, too. Just as the person training for a marathon needs access to timely information – her heart-rate, her O2 levels, her position (with respect to the goals she's articulated) at that moment – so, too, do business people need timely access to information and metrics. 

This is what I mean by running with data: it's to make information and insights available to people when and where they need it – that is, at the very site of decision making. 

The thing is, there used to be very good practical and technological reasons why this wasn't possible. These have effectively been obliterated. Go back to the heart-rate monitor or GPS you use when you're training for a marathon: both devices used to be prohibitively expensive; thanks to technological innovation and economies of scale, they've become commoditised. 

The same is true of the technologies and practices that underpin business decision making. 

So are you still running without data? As I said, you might be able to get away with it. Depending on your market or business model, data might not be of vital importance. On the other hand, even if you aren't trying to be the best you can be, some of your competitors probably are.

Michael Whitehead is CEO of WhereScape, a data technology company based in Auckland, with a global market of over 700 clients including some of the world’s largest blue chip companies, and a passionate exponent of extracting value from data.