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Knowledge poverty in information abundance – Stafford Beer’s insight July 7, 2006

Posted by Cyril Brookes in BI Requirements Definition, General, Stafford Beer.

In this age of BI excess of development capability and resource overload the lessons taught by our not-to-be-forgotten pioneers need to be reinforced. Stafford Beer is one of these leaders. There are many web sites with details of his work, e.g. www.staffordbeer.com.

For the BI professional, indeed all business analysts, I believe his most valuable insight is the distinction he labelled, perhaps obscurely, Attenuation versus Amplification.

This distinction ought to be part of the day-to-day mindset of every business analyst. It underlies the difference between the design of:

  • Pre-formatted, routine or on-demand, reporting for executives, and

  • Drilldown, detailed reporting for executives and their assistants

Attenuation, as envisaged by Beer, involves the presentation of summarized, assessed, forecast and otherwise pre-digested information that has the following benefits for executives:

  • Comfort that they know the status of the business, or their part of it

  • Assurance that any problem situations that are detectable, are detected

  • Confidence that they are alerted to unusual situations that may indicate problems

Amplification is a different class of reporting. It is only relevant when a problem exists, and involves presentation of detailed and assessment support that facilitates:

  • Diagnosis of problem severity, implications and sources, and

  • Modelling of the problem context to establish viable alternative solutions and their impact

I believe that many business analysts and BI designers today are unaware of this fundamental distinction. There are TWO types of information reporting – one that can be pre-formatted and the second that can only be facilitated. Design of BI reporting capability and content will be different for each type. If the designer does not make this distinction the result is that the report specifications do not match the problem finding and decision making mental processes of the target executives.

I will cover these concepts in more detail in a later post, but you may care to see how I’ve addressed them in my work on the BI Pathfinder methodology, see www.bipathfinder.com. In it I’ve attempted to implement Stafford Beer’s concepts, with particular focus on the specification of data definitions and dimensions.

If we recognize and implement the attenuation/amplification distinction more often in our report designs the knowledge awareness metric should increase dramatically.



1. Leonid Ototsky - July 21, 2006

Suppose it will be interesting for you to look at the presentations around Stafford Beer at the Metaphorum-2005 and Metaphorum-2006 conferences – http://www.ototsky.mgn.ru/it/abroad_menu.html
And at the “Lessons of Stafford Beer” paper –

2. Cyril Brookes - July 22, 2006

I applaud the global efforts at using Stafford Beer’s concepts to assist in managing economies. However, my skills and insight are much more in the micro economic context – specifically how enterprises can effectively present their business intelligence reporting to gain effective corporate performance measurement.

All the effort going into BI, especially Service Oriented Architectures is dependent on achieving high quality requirements definitions. adequate metadata management. In this area, the priciples ennunciated by Stafford Beer – applied to the macro – have equal, maybe even more, application to designing BI reporting.

There’s lots more, of course, that is required, but the inability of Business Analysts to see the difference between “Attenuation” and “Amplification” styles of information reporting is a major dysfunctional element.

Our BI Pathfinder project, http://www.bipathfinder.com, shows how Stafford Beer’s concepts may be applied to both hard and tacit data. In fact, I suspect that it is the tacit data analysis and reporting that may have some relevance to your reserarch and projects.

Thank you for your interest in my work.


3. Collaborative BI Implies a Personalized Grapevine – but, make it Smart Alerting or its all Blah! « Cyril on Business Intelligence - February 12, 2007

[…] Clearly, the traditional BI report, with information prepared by others submitted to potential decision makers is discredited. Today we have lakes and lakes of information available; Herbert Simon got it right in 1971: “Information abundance creates scarcity of attention”. And one can add: Knowledge poverty. […]

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