Context: The Key to Advancing Your Analytics

With the amount of electronic data currently available to businesses, companies are relying increasingly on technology to inform their decisions. It’s available, accessible, and business leaders have colossal amounts of reporting tools and information at their fingertips.

It’s tempting to assume that the sheer enormity of available data is indicative of analytical maturity – but is it?

What hasn’t changed (and in many ways has worsened) is the context of the information. You may have heard the term “metadata” used to refer to the context surrounding otherwise isolated data – in other words, data about data. This contextual classification is paramount to establishing a common understanding of key business terms and metrics in your company.

A Real World Example of Context in Business

In the hospitality industry, an important operating metric is the time it takes a housekeeper to clean each guest room. Hotel managers refer to this figure collectively as Minutes per Room (or “MPR”), and it is crucial for adequately forecasting labor, expenses, and bottom-line profitability. There might be pages and pages of reports you can run or data you can pull about your housekeeping team’s MPR – but without the proper context, they tell you nothing.

For example, how big is each room? Suites are likely to take much longer to clean than standard rooms. In what condition is the room? A week-long reservation is likely to create a lot more wear-and-tear than a guest who was only there overnight.

While data is helpful for drawing conclusions, we need metadata in order to fully understand these key business metrics and effectively leverage that information to make informed business decisions.

The Power of Physical Metadata

There was a time when in-person interactions were the exclusive source of this contextual information. In other words, if a business leader in the manufacturing industry wanted to increase production, he or she consulted directly with people on the manufacturing floor.

And because it was a person-to-person discussion, there was physical metadata to help – including characteristics like body language, tone of voice, and additional interactions with other coworkers. Multiple touchpoints and resources provided an abundance of context, and made it easier for leaders to draw an overall understanding of the subject.

The Effect of the Technological Revolution

After the global recession of 2009, the business world saw a shift. Faced with pervading economic uncertainty, companies were hard-pressed to keep head counts low – and increasingly, began to rely on technology for all of their information.

One troubling consequence of fewer bodies is the issue of the “human library” – one person holding all of a company’s institutional knowledge and memory. While technology may give us insights into hard data like product sales, it may overlook intuitive and undocumented “whys and hows” that determine an enterprise’s ultimate success.

Not only is this frustrating and stressful for other employees who don’t have access to this knowledge, there are also inherent risks of loss involved when the “human library” leaves the company.

While the technology revolution has given us access to enormous amounts of data, it has also resulted in exponentially less context (i.e. metadata). This has several implications – some minor and some incredibly costly.

Take the case of the Mars Climate Orbiter, in which a simple metric conversion error foiled an entire spacecraft mission. NASA used the metric system, while Lockheed Martin (a partnering aerospace contractor) provided navigation commands in English units – and as a result, a $125 million investment hurdled off into space, never to be seen again. What if these teams had relied on close proximity to conduct this mission, the way we did before the digital revolution? Would the physical metadata have facilitated more effective communication? Might they have stumbled upon the fact that they were using different units of measurement?

Misguided Solutions to the Metadata Loss

While many businesses are frustrated by this dilemma, few have a good understanding of the
problem – and those who do rarely have any idea how to solve it. As a result, focus is often misallocated.


Some common misguided solutions include:

Data Volume:

Business leaders often assume that the magnitude of their data is an indicator of advanced business insights. However, data should be measured in quality – not quantity. Instead of focusing on how much data you have, try measuring how many good business decisions you were able to make with it.

For instance: In our hotel example above, it wouldn’t make sense to measure success in the number of pages on an MPR report. Instead, the manager would get better insight by asking: How were the housekeeping schedules rewritten to account for the metadata surrounding MPR? How much was saved in labor expenses? How did those insights translate to the bottom line?

Data Automation:

Another misguided solution is automating a company’s existing data – for example, moving from the manual input of information to an autopopulating Excel spreadsheet. While this solves for data entry and might save you time, it does nothing to elevate your analytical maturity.

The Importance of Context

Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy, was no stranger to the value of metadata. Before Linnaeus, species were identified based on elaborate and objective descriptions. Linnaeus established a precise nomenclature system, and developed our current process for classifying living organisms. In doing so, he provided the necessary context to build a common framework of understanding, and ultimately advanced biological research.

As Charles Kettering once said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” Similar to Linnaeus’ contribution to modern biology, leveraging metadata and utilizing context in your analytics will rapidly advance your business insights.

Make no mistake – this is an inherently complex issue, which requires attention, investment, and expertise to solve for proper insights and analytical progress. But in order to equip your company with a competitive advantage in the digital age, work to employ the principles of metadata to form a cohesive understanding of your key terms and metrics.

Because after all – if we can all understand the facts, then we can begin to discuss a solution.

Learn how Perkins Consulting helps businesses navigate their metadata and leverage context for improved decisions. Give us a call at 503.221.7582.

1 Comment

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