Analytics: A Religion or a Beauty Contest?

Some still measure the quality of analytics by the quality of dashboards and reports, but effective use of analytics is much more than a pretty visualization.

I had the pleasure of attending a conference on analytics recently. It felt like a religious experience. As each speaker announced a new capability or widget, there was a respectful round of applause from the audience, many of whom, it must be said, work in the back offices of their organizations and probably aren’t allowed out in public very often.

My colleague, who is older and possibly wiser than me from time to time, whispered in my ear that it looked to him very much like a church gathering. The speakers were talking to the "believers" – those who had already got the analytics message and were looking for better ways to implement their insight. And what we had stumbled on wasn’t in fact an analytics conference, but rather a Church of Analytics.

It’s an interesting viewpoint. Isn’t the use of analytics in insurance – and indeed any industry – as much a matter of belief as of technology? A belief that the insurance industry is far too complex to be managed on intuition alone, that data-based insights are increasingly critical. ROIs are important for analytics, of course, but it’s as if you have to take that emotional leap of faith before signing up.

In fact, I’m sensing that organizations are making emotional decisions, then looking for an ROI calculation to justify their decision.

Oddly enough, when I first came into insurance a few decades ago, we used information to support decisions we had already made. If you look hard enough in the data, you can usually find that it supports even poor decisions. I hope that we’ve moved on a bit and now use insight to help organizations make good decisions, not validate poor ones.

What’s this got to do with beauty contests? It’s a brave (or stupid) man who offers an opinion on such a contentious topic, but the point I want to make is that there are those who still measure the quality of analytics by the quality of dashboards and reports. Effective use of analytics is much more than a pretty visualization, in the same way that judges at Miss World are now encouraged to think with a new perspective, about "beauty with a purpose." Check out their site, which talks about supporting leprosy and autism projects and daycare units for the disabled.

Good visualization effects are important and help improve user consumption – but effective use of analytics means much more just than a pretty dashboard. It’s the ability to gain better business understanding, support (or create) business strategy and manage progress. As with Miss World, the beauty of analytics is more than skin deep.

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