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Personalization in BI: Selective Dissemination and Targeted Retrieval of Important Information January 30, 2007

Posted by Cyril Brookes in General, Issues in building BI reporting systems, Stafford Beer, Tacit (soft) information for BI.
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Personalization in BI grows in significance with the near universal recognition that passive reporting, designed for the masses by supposed experts, is limited in its utility. Action oriented reporting is preferable; it always has been. However, many business analysts do not recognize that selective dissemination of information, aka personalization, is a pre-requisite if reporting is to stimulate action. Only specific people can or need to take action, and common sense tells us that they must be targeted.

See, for example, the article by Neil Raden.

Two sorts of personalization apply in a BI context:

         Push and Pull

Each can be applied to external or internal recipients.

The focus of this blog is on selectively pulling information, predominately by internal people. This is the principal aim of action oriented BI, directing valuable information (and only valuable information) to executives and professionals that assess a situation and/or take action as a result. This is not to say that other aspects of BI, such as keeping people informed as to status of the business, should be ignored. But these objectives are far less vital than supporting executvie actions.

I leave discussion on the much more fraught selective information push situation to others. Determining what information will be of interest to a customer or supplier and pushing this category of stuff to them can be a valuable marketing tool, or (more likely IMHO) a PR disaster. We always hear of Amazon.com and its success with cognate book promotions, but books are easily categorized in a universally accepted manner; most other items are not so easily classified , and the implications for inappropriate information push can be dysfunctional.

Any discussion on the effectiveness of BI for improving the quality of executive decisions (and what other purpose might it have?) must have regard to the actual decision making process. The theory of this process is well established, notably by Herbert Simon. Many researchers have also considered the relationship between this process and the information required for its operation. In this context I particularly value the work of Stafford Beer and Henry Minzberg.

Information that enables effective decision making belongs to one of two categories, and both are essential if decisions are to be optimal:

It helps the executive find problems and opportunities – situations that need a response.

Stafford Beer calls this Attenuation information, and I have discussed this in detail earlier

It helps the executive solve problems he/she has found (or been told about)

Beer calls this Amplification information, also discussed in this blog earlier

But I diverge.

Returning to the personalization theme; selective dissemination is vital in the problem finding context.

Obvious candidates include:

  • Alerting the executive to important exceptions, out-of-specification performance, unusual situations, adverse forecasts of key indicators, and unacceptable (or advantageous) trends.

  • Equally, if not more, critical is soft information (opinions, comments, assessments, etc. that portend problems, or throw doubt on the accuracy of factual information.

Targeted information retrieval is also vital to support problem solving.

  • The solution process that needs supporting includes diagnosis of the severity of the problem (what will happen if nothing is done), identifying possible alternatives and assessing their implications.
  • During a decision making process executives must be able to retrieve important, valuable, information as distinct from the routine stuff. This applies to both factual and soft (tacit) information. In this context, the latter includes ideas about problem implications, suggestions for potential solution alternatives and recollections about what we did last time this happened.

The key word in both these situations is “importance”.

Alerting to, and targeted retrieval of, useful information implies that some assessment must be made of the significance of a data item, either using an automated rule system, or a personal assessment.

Truly this is the stuff of business intelligence. Without importance classification all information is equal, but obviously this is not reality.

Selective dissemination and targeted retrieval, the basis of all personalization, depend therefore on the BI context being able to distinguish information importance as well as its subject, topic, or data class.

Importance, in turn, depends on two characteristics: urgency and value to the business.

I have experimented over 20 years with different retrieval/alerting procedures for corporate BI systems, using both automated and human importance assessment. I’ll detail this experience in the next post.

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