“Where are we going?” is one of those questions that seem essential to our human way of thinking. Immediately followed, of course, by the childlike, “Are we there yet?”
A big part of our job as analysts is to answer those questions for the organizations we work for. But when it comes to our own profession, there’s no simple forecasting method or tool for telling us where analytics is going. Is big data and machine learning our future? Or will we all be story-tellers, making analytic movies, on location?
Awhile back I blogged briefly on a topic I’ve been intending to re-visit – analytics for innovation. It’s an interesting subject precisely because it seems almost impossible. Analytics, after all, is about using the past to understand the present and predict the future. At its heart, analytics embeds an assumption of sameness that seems to make it useless for innovation. Analytics draws us a box, innovation lives outside of it.
There are, nevertheless, types of analytics that can support innovation. For companies looking to understand what I would describe as mid-range forecasts (2-4 years out), segmentation can be used to identify early-adopters and then extrapolate from their patterns, behaviors and decision factors to understand where the mainstream will be a few years from now.
At a more personal, anecdotal level, there are people who seem to be consistently ahead of the game. Most successful people make one good (or lucky) guess. You find or fall into the right niche and it turns out be a good place to be or a good place for you. Truth to tell, most of us in analytics fall into some part of that “lucky guess” quadrant. Making one good guess can make you successful for life, but it doesn’t make you much of a predictor for the future. Nor, I suppose, does being a great barometer necessarily make you a success. I’ve always loved Tom Wolfe’s “Man Who Peaked too Soon” – a series of drawings about a poor guy who is always about 7-10 years ahead of the fashions. His hippie get-up is a flop in the 50’s; his disco outfits have no cred in the 60s, his power suit and skinny tie are useless in the 70's. It’s best to be a little ahead of your time…but not too much.
Which brings me to someone who I think fits that “consistently ahead of the curve” billing in our community – Dennis Mortensen. Here’s a quick bio from LinkedIn. Back in 1996, Dennis started an interactive agency, later acquired in 2000. 1996 is pretty good for starting an interactive agency! In 2002, he started Evonax – and early Opentable like venture in Europe. On the “peaked too soon” side of things, obviously, it went bust in 2003. Then (as this is where he came on to my radar), he started Indextools – one of the early, successful Web analytics tools which was acquired in 2008. Starting a Web analytics company in 2003 was another darn good call. He was about 4-5 years ahead of most folks that time. In 2010, free once again, he started Visual Revenue - one of the first dedicated Predictive Analytics companies in our space. Sold in 2013. At least 3-4 years ahead of the market, I'd say.
I hope you see a pattern here. Sure, real-life journeys are always way messier than our cleaned up personal memoirs would suggest. But here’s someone who saw the potential for the Internet before most of us, saw how it could deliver real-world transactional convenience even when the rest of us were reeling from the dot-com bust, recognized the importance of analytics to digital about 4-5 years before the market, understood that analytics need to deliver action at least 3-4 years before we caught up – and was able to act on and create real companies to deliver on all those insights.
To my mind, Dennis is as good a predictor of the future as you’ll find in our industry – not because he makes his living telling people what the future is going to hold (that’s the realm of sophists), but because he makes his living building that future and because he’s darn good at it.
So when Dennis started x.ai, I just had to know what it was…and, truthfully, it wasn’t at all what I expected.
Despite the name, which had me thinking of an esoteric artificial intelligence play, x.ai is about solving a mundane, common, seemingly simple problem in just about every business-person’s life. It’s about solving that problem through a much deeper and more thorough use of computer power and intelligence than had ever been devoted to it. And, in the solution, delivering an experience that completely hides the work and the analysis that went into it.
I’ll let folks check out x.ai for themselves. Think about it. Take note.
Because I think Dennis is on to something. As usual. His journey from building Websites to building online systems to building the reporting and DIY analytics to understand those systems, to making tools to optimize those systems and, now, finally, back to building online systems that embed that intelligence is a beautiful one with a striking symmetry (manufactured by me, of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real).
In 4-5 years, if Dennis is his usual predictive self, that’s what we are all going to be trying to do. Embedding deep intelligence into real-world tasks.
This is why I’ve asked Dennis to keynote X Change and give the one actual speech of the Conference. To talk about x.ai and what’s involved in getting it right (and maybe a bit about the journey getting there too). It may be a couple of years before most of us have to worry about building x.ai like applications using analytics, but if we start thinking about it now, maybe we can all be a little bit ahead of the curve this time around.
[Here's another way to predict the future - ask carefully about the present. We're running a survey of enterprise digital analtyics capabilities and programs. If you're on the enterprise side and can spare us a bit of time, please click through and let us know how you do digital analytics...]