Wednesday, September 3, 2014


This is from a blog by the Harvard Business Review.  It validates what we say that data analytics is not enough.  Companies need supply chain/logistics experts with real experience and supply chain/logistics domain expertise for the "hows" and "whys".


Learn from Your Analytics Failures

by Michael Schrage | 10:00 AM September 3, 2014

By far, the safest prediction about the business future of predictive analytics is that more thought and effort will go into prediction than analytics. That’s bad news and worse management. Grasping the analytic “hows” and “whys” matters more than the promise of prediction.

In the good old days, of course, predictions were called forecasts and stodgy statisticians would torture their time series and/or molest multivariate analyses to get them. Today, brave new data scientists discipline k-means clusters and random graphs to proffer their predictions. Did I mention they have petabytes more data to play with and process?

While the computational resources and techniques for prediction may be novel and astonishingly powerful, many of the human problems and organizational pathologies appear depressingly familiar. The prediction imperative frequently narrows focus rather than broadens perception. “Predicting the future” can—in the spirit of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational—unfortunately bring out the worst cognitive impulses in otherwise smart people. The most enduring impact of predictive analytics, I’ve observed, comes less from quantitatively improving the quality of prediction than from dramatically changing how organizations think about problems and opportunities.

Ironically, the greatest value from predictive analytics typically comes more from their unexpected failures than their anticipated success. In other words, the real influence and insight come from learning exactly how and why your predictions failed. Why? Because it means the assumptions, the data, the model and/or the analyses were wrong in some meaningfully measurable way. The problem—and pathology—is that too many organizations don’t know how to learn from analytic failure. They desperately want to make the prediction better instead of better understanding the real business challenges their predictive analytics address. Prediction foolishly becomes the desired destination instead of the introspective journey.

In pre-Big Data days, for example, a hotel chain used some pretty sophisticated mathematics, data mining, and time series analysis to coordinate its yield management pricing and promotion efforts. This ultimately required greater centralization and limiting local operator flexibility and discretion. The forecasting models—which were marvels—mapped out revenues and margins by property and room type. The projections worked fine for about a third of the hotels but were wildly, destructively off for another third. The forensics took weeks; the data were fine. Were competing hotels running unusual promotions that screwed up the model? Nope. For the most part, local managers followed the yield management rules.

Almost five months later, after the year’s financials were totally blown and HQ’s credibility shot, the most likely explanation materialized: The modeling group—the data scientists of the day—had priced against the hotel group’s peer competitors. They hadn’t weighted discount hotels into either pricing or room availability. For roughly a quarter of the properties, the result was both lower average occupancy and lower prices per room.

The modeling group had done everything correctly. Top management’s belief in its brand value and positioning excluded discounters from their competitive landscape. Think this example atypical or anachronistic? I had a meeting last year with another hotel chain that’s now furiously debating whether Airbnb’s impact should be incorporated into their yield management equations.

More recently, a major industrial products company made a huge predictive analytics commitment to preventive maintenance to identify and fix key components before they failed and more effectively allocate the firm’s limited technical services talent. Halfway through the extensive—and expensive—data collection and analytics review, a couple of the repair people observed that, increasingly, many of the subsystems could be instrumented and remotely monitored in real time. In other words, preventive maintenance could be analyzed and managed as part of a networked system. This completely changed the design direction and the business value potential of the initiative. The value emphasis shifted from preventive maintenance to efficiency management with key customers. Again, the predictive focus initially blurred the larger vision of where the real value could be.

When predictive analytics are done right, the analyses aren’t a means to a predictive end; rather, the desired predictions become a means to analytical insight and discovery. We do a better job of analyzing what we really need to analyze and predicting what we really want to predict. Smart organizations want predictive analytic cultures where the analyzed predictions create smarter questions as well as offer statistically meaningful answers. Those cultures quickly and cost-effectively turn predictive failures into analytic successes.
To paraphrase a famous saying in a data science context, the best way to predict the future is to learn from failed predictive analytics