Thematic Analysis is a powerful qualitative approach used by many consultants. It involves identifying patterns and themes to better understand how and why something happened, which provides the context for other quantitative analysis. It can also be utilized when developing strategies and tactics due to its “cause and effect” nature.
Typical analysis tends to be event-based. Something happened that was unexpected. Some type of triggering or compelling event is sought to either stop something from happening or to make something happen. With enough of the right data, you may be able to identify patterns, which can help predict what will happen next based on past events. This data-based understanding may be simplistic or incomplete, but often it is sufficient.
But, people are creatures of habit. If you can identify and understand those habits, and place them within the context of a specific environment that includes interactions with others, you may be able to identify patterns within the patterns. Those themes can be much better indicators of what may or may not happen than the data itself. They not only become better predictors of things to come but can also help identify more effective strategies and tactics to achieve your goals.
This approach requires that a person view an event (desired or historical) from various perspectives to help understand:
- Things that are accidental but predictable because of human nature.
- Things that are predictable based on other events and interactions.
- Things that are the logical consequence of a series of events and outcomes.
Aside from the practical implications of this approach I find it fascinating relative to AI and Predictive Analysis.
For example, by understanding the recurring themes and triggers you can monitor data and activities proactively. That is actionable intelligence that can be automated and incorporated into a larger system. Machine Learning and Deep Learning can analyze tremendous volumes of data from a variety of sources in realtime.
Combine that with Semantic Analysis, which is challenging due to the complexity of taxonomies and ontologies, and now that system more accurately understand what is really happening in order to make accurate predictions. Add in spatial and temporal data such as IoT, metadata from photographs, etc. and you should have the ability to view something as though you were very high up – providing the ability to “see” what is on the path ahead. It is obviously not that simple, but it is exciting to think about.
From a practical perspective, keeping these thoughts in the back of your mind will help you see details that other people have missed. That makes for better analysis, better strategies, and better execution.
Who wouldn’t want that?
One of the many changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has been a sea change in thoughts and goals around Supply Chain Management (SCM). Existing SCM systems were up-ended in mere months as it has become challenging to procure raw materials to components, manufacturing has shifted to meet new unanticipated needs, and logistics challenges have arisen out of health-related staffing issues, safe working distances, and limited shipping options and availability. In short, things are a mess!
Foundational business changes will require modern approaches to Change Management. Change is not easy – especially at scale, so having ongoing support from the top down and providing incentives to motivate the right behaviors, actions, and outcomes will especially critical to the success of those initiatives. And remember, “What gets measured gets managed,” so focusing on the aspects of business and change that really matter will become a greater focus.
Business Intelligence systems will be especially important for Descriptive Analysis. Machine Learning will likely begin to play a larger role as organizations seek a more comprehensive understanding of patterns and work towards accurate Predictive Analysis. And of course, Artificial Intelligence / Deep Learning / Neural Networks use should accelerate as the need for Prescriptive Analysis grows. Technology will provide many of the insights needed for business leaders to make the best decisions in the shortest amount of time that is both possible and prudent.
This is also the right time to consider upgrading to a modern business ecosystem that is collaborative, agile, and has the ability to quickly and cost-effectively expand and adapt to whatever comes next. Click on this link to see more of the benefits of this type of model.
Whether you like it or not, change is coming. So, why not take a proactive posture to help ensure that this change is good and meets the objectives your company or organization needs.
Changes like this are all-encompassing so it is helpful to begin with the mindset of, “Win together, Lose together.” In general, it helps to have all areas of an organization moving in lockstep towards a common goal but at a critical juncture like this that is no longer an option.
Recently I was helping one of my children research a topic for a school paper. She was doing well, but the results she was getting were overly broad. So, I taught her some “Google-Fu,” explaining how you can structure queries in ways that yield better results. She replied that search engines should be smarter than that. I explained that sometimes the problem is that search engines look at your past searches and customize results as an attempt to appear smarter or to motivate someone to do or believe something.
Unfortunately, those results can be skewed and potentially lead someone in the wrong direction. It was a good reminder that getting the best results from search engines often requires a bit of skill and query planning, as well as occasional third-party validation.
Then the other day I saw this commercial from Motel 6 (“Gas Station Trouble”) where a man has problems getting good results from his smart phone. That reminded me of seeing someone speak to their phone, getting frustrated by the responses received. His questions went something like this:
“Siri, I want to take my wife to dinner tonight, someplace that is not too far away, and not too late. And she likes to have a view while eating so please look for something with a nice view. Oh, and we don’t want Italian food because we just had that last night.”
Just as amazing as the question being asked was watching him ask it over and over again in the exact same way, each time becoming even more frustrated. I asked myself, “Are smartphones making us dumber?” Instead of contemplating that question I began to think about what future smart interfaces would or could be like.
I grew up watching Sci-Fi computer interfaces like “Computer” on Star Trek (1966), “HAL” on 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968), “KITT” from Knight Rider (1982), and “Samantha” from Her (2013). These interfaces had a few things in common:
- They responded to verbal commands;
- They were interactive – not just providing answers, but also asking qualifying questions and allowing for interrupts to drill-down or enhance the search (e.g., with pictures or questions that resembled verbal Venn diagrams);
- They often provided suggestions for alternate queries based on intuition. That would have been helpful for the gentleman trying to find a restaurant.
Despite having 50 years of science fiction examples, we are still a long way off from realizing that goal of a truly intelligent interface. Like many new technologies, they were originally envisioned by science fiction writers long before they appeared in science.
There seems to be a spectrum of common beliefs about modern interfaces. On one end there are products that make visualization easy, facilitating understanding, refinement and drill-down of data sets. Tableau is a great example of this type of easy to use interface. At the other end of the spectrum the emphasis is on back-end systems – robust computer systems that digest huge volumes of data and return the results to complex queries within seconds. Several other vendors offer powerful analytics platforms. In reality, you really need a strong front-end and back-end if you want to achieve the full potential of either.
But, there is so much more potential…
I predict that within the next 3 – 5 years we will see business and consumer interface examples (powered by Natural Language Processing, or NLP) that are closer to the verbal interfaces from those familiar Sci-Fi shows (albeit with limited capabilities and no flashing lights).
Within the next 10 years I believe we will have computer interfaces that intuit our needs and facilitate the generation of correct answers quickly and easily. While this is unlikely to be at the level of “The world’s first intelligent Operating System” envisioned in the movie “Her,” and probably won’t even be able to read lips like “HAL,” it should be much more like HAL and KITT than like Siri (from Apple) or Cortana (from Microsoft).
Siri was groundbreaking consumer technology when it was introduced. Cortana seems to have taken a small leap ahead. While I have not mentioned Google Now, it is somewhat of a latecomer to this consumer smart interface party, and in my opinion is behind both Siri and Cortana.
So, what will this future smart interface do? It will need to be very powerful, harnessing a natural language interface on the front-end with an extremely flexible and robust analytics interface on the back-end. The language interface will need to take a standard question (in multiple languages and dialects) – just as if you were asking a person, deconstruct it using Natural Language Processing, and develop the proper query based on the available data. That is important but only gets you so far.
Data will come from many sources – things that we consider today with relational, object, graph, and NoSQL databases. There will be structured and unstructured data that must be joined and filtered quickly and accurately. In addition, context will be more important than ever. Pictures and videos could be scanned for facial recognition, location (via geotagging), and in the case of videos analyze speech. Relationships will be identified and inferred based on a variety of sources, using both data and metadata. Sensors will collect data from almost everything we do and (someday) wear, which will provide both content and context.
The use of Stylometry will identify outside content likely related to the people involved in the query and provide further context about interests, activities, and even biases. This is how future interfaces will truly understand (not just interpret), intuit (so it can determine what you really want to know), and then present results that may be far more accurate than we are used to today. Because the interface is interactive in nature it will provide the ability to organize and analyze subsets of data quickly and easily.
So, where do I think that this technology will originate? I believe that it will be adapted from video game technology. Video games have consistently pushed the envelope over the years, helping drive the need for higher bandwidth I/O capabilities in devices and networks, better and faster graphics capabilities, and larger and faster storage (which ultimately led to flash memory and even Hadoop). Animation has become very lifelike and games are becoming more responsive to audio commands. It is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that this is where the next generation of smart interfaces will be found (instead of from the evolution of current smart interfaces).
Someday it may no longer be possible to “tweak” results through the use or omission of keywords, quotation marks, and flags. Additionally, it may no longer be necessary to understand special query languages (SQL, NoSQL, SPARQL, etc.) and syntax. We won’t have to worry as much about incorrect joins, spurious correlations and biased result sets. Instead, we will be given the answers we need – even if we don’t realize that this was what we needed in the first place. At that point computer systems may appear nearly omniscient.
When this happens parents will no longer need to teach their children “Google-Fu.” Those are going be interesting times indeed.
In an earlier post I wrote about spurious correlations. Over the weekend I ran across a site that focuses on finding and posting amusing spurious correlations. While the posts are intended to be funny they do make some very valid points. So, check it out, let me know what you think, and have some fun!
Back in early 2011 myself and 15 other members of the Executive team at Ingres were taking a bet on the future of our company. We knew that we needed to do something big and bold, and decided to build what we thought the standard data platform would be in 5-7 years. A small minority of the people on that team did not believe this was possible and left, while the rest of us focused on making that happen. There were three strategic acquisitions to fill-in the gaps on our Big Data platform. Today (as Actian) we have nearly achieved our goal. It was a leap of faith back then, but our vision turned out to be spot-on and our gamble is paying off today.
Every day my mailbox is filled with stories, seminars, white papers, etc. about Big Data. While it feels like this is becoming more mainstream, it is interesting to read and hear the various comments on the subject. They range from, “It’s not real” and “It’s irrelevant” to “It can be transformational for your business” to “Without big data there would be no <insert company name here>.”
What I continue to find amazing is hearing comments about big data being optional. It’s not – that genie has already been let out of the bottle. There are incredible opportunities for those companies that understand and embrace the potential. I like to tell people that big data can be their unfair advantage in business. Is that really the case? Let’s explore that assertion and find out.
We live in the age of the “Internet of Things.” Data about nearly everything is everywhere, and the tools to correlate that data to gain understanding of so many things (activities, relationships, likes and dislikes, etc.) With smart devices that enable mobile computing we have the extra dimension of location. And, with new technologies such as Graph Databases (based on SPARQL), graphic interfaces to analyze that data (such as Sigma), and identification technology such as Stylometry, it is getting easier than ever to identify and correlate that data.
We are generating increasingly larger and larger volumes of data about everything we do and everything going on around us, and tools are evolving to make sense of that data better and faster than ever. Those organizations that perform the best analysis, get the answers fastest, and act on that insight quickly are more likely to win than the organizations that look at a smaller slice of the world or adopt a “wait and see” posture. So, that seems like a significant advantage in my book. But, is it an unfair advantage?
First, let’s keep in mind that big data is really just another tool. Like most tools it has the potential for misuse and abuse. And, whether a particular application is viewed as “good” or “bad” is dependent on the goals and perspective of the entity using the tool (which may be the polar opposite view of the groups of people targeted by those people or organizations). So, I will not attempt to make judgments about the various use cases, but rather present a few use cases and let you decide.
Scenario 1 – Sales Organization: What if you could not only understand what you were being told a prospect company needs, but also had a way to validate and refine that understanding? That’s half the battle in sales (budget, integration, and support / politics are other key hurdles). Data that helped you understand not only the actions of that organization (customers and industries, sales and purchases, gains and losses, etc.), but also the goals, interests and biases of the stakeholders and decision makers. This could provide a holistic view of the environment and allow you to provide a highly targeted offering, with messaging tailored to each individual. That is possible, and I’ll explain soon.
Scenario 2 – Hiring Organization: As a hiring manager there are many questions that cannot be asked. While I’m not an attorney, I would bet that State and Federal laws have not kept pace with technology. And, while those laws vary state by state, there are likely loopholes that allow for use of public records. Moreover, implied data that is not officially taken into consideration could color the judgment of a hiring manager or organization. For instance, if you wanted to “get a feeling” if a candidate might fit-in with the team or the culture of the organization, or have interests and views that are aligned with or contrary to your own, you could look for personal internet activity that would provide a more accurate picture of that person’s interests.
Scenario 3 – Teacher / Professor: There are already sites in use to search for plagiarism in written documents, but what if you had a way to make an accurate determination about whether an original work was created by your student? There are people who, for a price, will do the work and write a paper for a student. So, what if you could not only determine that the paper was not written by your student, but also determine who the likely author was?
Do some of these things seem impossible, or at least implausible? Personally, I don’t believe so. Let’s start with the typical data that our credit card companies, banks, search engines, and social network sites already have related to us. Add to that the identified information that is available for purchase from marketing companies and various government agencies. That alone can provide a pretty comprehensive view of us. But, there is so much more that’s available.
Think about the potential of gathering information from intelligent devices that are accessible through the Internet, or your alarm and video monitoring system, etc. These are intended to be private data sources, but one thing history has taught us is that anything accessible is subject to unauthorized access and use (just think about the numerous recent credit card hacking incidents).
Even de-identified data (medical / health / prescription / insurance claim data is one major example), which receives much less protection and can often be purchased, could be correlated with a reasonably high degree of confidence to gain understanding on other “private” aspects of your life. The key is to look for connections (websites, IP addresses, locations, businesses, people), things that are logically related (such as illnesses / treatments / prescriptions), and then make as accurate of an identification as possible (stylometry looks at things like sentence complexity, function words, co-location of words, misspellings and misuse of words, etc. and will likely someday take into consideration things like idea density). It is nearly impossible to remain anonymous in the Age of Big Data.
There has been a paradigm shift when it comes to the practical application of data analysis, and the companies that understand this and embrace it will likely perform better than those who don’t. There are new ethical considerations that arise from this technology, and likely new laws and regulations as well. But for now, the race is on!