Sledgehammer: Pisano Talks!

My blogging hiatus is coming to an end as I take a sledgehammer to the writer’s block wall.

I’ve traveled far and wide over the last six months to various venues across the country and have collected a number of new and interesting perspectives on the issues of data transformation, integrated project management, and business analytics and visualization. As a result, I have developed some very strong opinions regarding the trends that work and those that don’t regarding these topics and will be sharing these perspectives (with the appropriate supporting documentation per usual) in following posts.

To get things started this post will be relatively brief.

First, I will be speaking along with co-presenter John Collins, who is a Senior Acquisition Specialist at the Navy Engineering & Logistics Office, at the Integrated Program Management Workshop at the Hyatt Regency in beautiful downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor 10-12 December. So come on down! (or over) and give us a listen.

The topic is “Unlocking Data to Improve National Defense Systems”. Today anyone can put together pretty visualizations of data from Excel spreadsheets and other sources–and some have made quite a bit of money doing so. But accessing the right data at the right level of detail, transforming it so that its information content can be exploited, and contextualizing it properly through integration will provide the most value to organizations.

Furthermore, our presentation will make a linkage to what data is necessary to national defense systems in constructing the necessary artifacts to support the Department of Defense’s Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process and what eventually becomes the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).

Traditionally information capture and reporting has been framed as a question of oversight, reporting, and regulation related to contract management, capital investment cost control, and DoD R&D and acquisition program management. But organizations that fail to leverage the new powerful technologies that double processing and data storage capability every 18 months, allowing for both the depth and breadth of data to expand exponentially, are setting themselves up to fail. In national defense, this is a condition that cannot be allowed to occur.

If DoD doesn’t collect this information, which we know from the reports of cybersecurity agencies that other state actors are collecting, we will be at a serious strategic disadvantage. We are in a new frontier of knowledge discovery in data. Our analysts and program managers think they know what they need to be viewing, but adding new perspectives through integration provide new perspectives and, as a result, will result in new indicators and predictive analytics that will, no doubt, overtake current practice. Furthermore, that information can now be processed and contribute more, timely, and better intelligence to the process of strategic and operational planning.

The presentation will be somewhat wonky and directed at policymakers and decisionmakers in both government and industry. But anyone can play, and that is the cool aspect of our community. The presentation will be non-commercial, despite my day job–a line I haven’t crossed up to this point in this blog, but in this latter case will be changing to some extent.

Back in early 2018 I became the sole proprietor of SNA Software LLC–an industry technology leader in data transformation–particularly in capturing datasets that traditionally have been referred to as “Big Data”–and a hybrid point solution that is built on an open business intelligence framework. Our approach leverages the advantages of COTS (delivering the 80% solution out of the box) with open business intelligence that allows for rapid configuration to adapt the solution to an organization’s needs and culture. Combined with COTS data capture and transformation software–the key to transforming data into information and then combining it to provide intelligence at the right time and to the right place–the latency in access to trusted intelligence is reduced significantly.

Along these lines, I have developed some very specific opinions about how to achieve this transformation–and have put those concepts into practice through SNA and delivered those solutions to our customers. Thus, the result has been to reduce both the effort and time to capture large datasets from data that originates in pre-processed data, and to eliminate direct labor and the duration to information delivery by more than 99%. The path to get there is not to apply an army of data scientists and data analysts that deals with all data as if it is flat and to reinvent the wheel–only to deliver a suboptimized solution sometime in the future after unnecessarily expending time and resources. This is a devolution to the same labor-intensive business intelligence approaches that we used back in the 1980s and 1990s. The answer is not to throw labor at data that already has its meaning embedded into its information content. The answer is to apply smarts through technology, and that’s what we do.

Further along these lines, if you are using hard-coded point solutions (also called purpose-built software) and knitted best-of-breed, chances are that you will find that you are poorly positioned to exploit new technology and will be obsolete within the next five years, if not sooner. The model of selling COTS solutions and walking away except for traditional maintenance and support is dying. The new paradigm will be to be part of the solution and that requires domain knowledge that translates into technology delivery.

More on these points in future posts, but I’ve placed the stake in the ground and we’ll see how they hold up to critique and comment.

Finally, I recently became aware of an extremely informative and cutting-edge website that includes podcasts from thought leaders in the area of integrated program management. It is entitled InnovateIPM and is operated and moderated by a gentleman named Rob Williams. He is a domain expert in project cost development, with over 20 years of experience in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. Robin has served in a variety of roles throughout his career and is now focuses on cost estimating and Front-End Loading quality assurance. His current role is advanced project cost estimator at Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City.

Rob was also nice enough to continue a discussion we started at a project controls symposium and interviewed me for a podcast. I’ll post additional information once it is posted.

(Data) Transformation–Fear and Loathing over ETL in Project Management

ETL stands for data extract, transform, and load. This essential step is the basis for all of the new capabilities that we wish to acquire during the next wave of information technology: business analytics, big(ger) data, interdisciplinary insight into processes that provide insights into improving productivity and efficiency.

I’ve been dealing with a good deal of fear and loading regarding the introduction of this concept, even though in my day job my organization is a leading practitioner in the field in its vertical. Some of this is due to disinformation by competitors in playing upon the fears of the non-technically minded–the expected reaction of those who can’t do in the last throws of avoiding irrelevance. Better to baffle them with bullshit than with brilliance, I guess.

But, more importantly, part of this is due to the state of ETL and how it is communicated to the project management and business community at large. There is a great deal to be gained here by muddying the waters even by those who know better and have the technology. So let’s begin by clearing things up and making this entire field a bit more coherent.

Let’s start with the basics. Any organization that contains the interaction of people is a system. For purposes of a project management team, a business enterprise, or a governmental body we deal with a special class of systems known as Complex Adaptive Systems: CAS for short. A CAS is a non-linear learning system that reacts and evolves to its environment. It is complex because of the inter-relationships and interactions of more than two agents in any particular portion of the system.

I was first introduced to the concept of CAS through readings published out of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Most noteworthy is the work The Quark and the Jaguar by the physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Gell-Mann is received the Nobel in physics in 1969 for his work on elementary particles, such as the quark, and is co-founder of the Institute. He also was part of the team that first developed simulated Monte Carlo analysis during a period he spent at RAND Corporation. Anyone interested in the basic science of quanta and how the universe works that then leads to insights into subjects such as day-to-day probability and risk should read this book. It is a good popular scientific publication written by a brilliant mind, but very relevant to the subjects we deal with in project management and information science.

Understanding that our organizations are CAS allows us to apply all sorts of tools to better understand them and their relationship to the world at large. From a more practical perspective, what are the risks involved in the enterprise in which we are engaged and what are the probabilities associated with any of the range of outcomes that we can label as success. For my purposes, the science of information theory is at the forefront of these tools. In this world an engineer by the name of Claude Shannon working at Bell Labs essentially invented the mathematical basis for everything that followed in the world of telecommunications, generating, interpreting, receiving, and understanding intelligence in communication, and the methods of processing information. Needless to say, computing is the main recipient of this theory.

Thus, all CAS process and react to information. The challenge for any entity that needs to survive and adapt in a continually changing universe is to ensure that the information that is being received is of high and relevant quality so that the appropriate adaptation can occur. There will be noise in the signals that we receive. What we are looking for from a practical perspective in information science are the regularities in the data so that we can make the transformation of receiving the message in a mathematical manner (where the message transmitted is received) into the definition of information quality that we find in the humanities. I believe that we will find that mathematical link eventually, but there is still a void there. A good discussion of this difference can be found here in the on-line publication Double Dialogues.

Regardless of this gap, the challenge of those of us who engage in the business of ETL must bring to the table the ability not only to ensure that the regularities in the information are identified and transmitted to the intended (or necessary) users, but also to distinguish the quality of the message in the terms of the purpose of the organization. Shannon’s equation is where we start, not where we end. Given this background, there are really two basic types of data that we begin with when we look at a set of data: structured and unstructured data.

Structured data are those where the qualitative information content is either predefined by its nature or by a tag of some sort. For example, schedule planning and performance data, regardless of the idiosyncratic/proprietary syntax used by a software publisher, describes the same phenomena regardless of the software application. There are only so many ways to identify snow–and, no, the Inuit people do not have 100 words to describe it. Qualifiers apply in the humanities, but usually our business processes more closely align with statistical and arithmetic measures. As a result, structured data is oftentimes defined by its position in a hierarchical, time-phased, or interrelated system that contains a series of markers, indexes, and tables that allow it to be interpreted easily through the identification of a Rosetta stone, even when the system, at first blush, appears to be opaque. When you go to a book, its title describes what it is. If its content has a table of contents and/or an index it is easy to find the information needed to perform the task at hand.

Unstructured data consists of the content of things like letters, e-mails, presentations, and other forms of data disconnected from its source systems and collected together in a flat repository. In this case the data must be mined to recreate what is not there: the title that describes the type of data, a table of contents, and an index.

All data requires initial scrubbing and pre-processing. The difference here is the means used to perform this operation. Let’s take the easy path first.

For project management–and most business systems–we most often encounter structured data. What this means is that by understanding and interpreting standard industry terminology, schemas, and APIs that the simple process of aligning data to be transformed and stored in a database for consumption can be reduced to a systemic and repeatable process without the redundancy of rediscovery applied in every instance. Our business intelligence and business analytics systems can be further developed to anticipate a probable question from a user so that the query is pre-structured to allow for near immediate response. Further, structuring the user interface in such as way as to make the response to the query meaningful, especially integrated with and juxtaposed other types of data requires subject matter expertise to be incorporated into the solution.

Structured ETL is the place that I most often inhabit as a provider of software solutions. These processes are both economical and relatively fast, particularly in those cases where they are applied to an otherwise inefficient system of best-of-breed applications that require data transfers and cross-validation prior to official reporting. Time, money, and effort are all saved by automating this process, improving not only processing time but also data accuracy and transparency.

In the case of unstructured data, however, the process can be a bit more complicated and there are many ways to skin this cat. The key here is that oftentimes what seems to be unstructured data is only so because of the lack of domain knowledge by the software publisher in its target vertical.

For example, I recently read a white paper published by a large BI/BA publisher regarding their approach to financial and accounting systems. My own experience as a business manager and Navy Supply Corps Officer provide me with the understanding that these systems are highly structured and regulated. Yet, business intelligence publishers treated this data–and blatantly advertised and apparently sold as state of the art–an unstructured approach to mining this data.

This approach, which was first developed back in the 1980s when we first encountered the challenge of data that exceeded our expertise at the time, requires a team of data scientists and coders to go through the labor- and time-consuming process of pre-processing and building specialized processes. The most basic form of this approach involves techniques such as frequency analysis, summarization, correlation, and data scrubbing. This last portion also involves labor-intensive techniques at the microeconomic level such as binning and other forms of manipulation.

This is where the fear and loathing comes into play. It is not as if all information systems do not perform these functions in some manner, it is that in structured data all of this work has been done and, oftentimes, is handled by the database system. But even here there is a better way.

My colleague, Dave Gordon, who has his own blog, will emphasize that the identification of probable questions and configuration of queries in advance combined with the application of standard APIs will garner good results in most cases. Yet, one must be prepared to receive a certain amount of irrelevant information. For example, the query on Google of “Fun Things To Do” that you may use if you are planning for a weekend will yield all sorts of results, such as “50 Fun Things to Do in an Elevator.”  This result includes making farting sounds. The link provides some others, some of which are pretty funny. In writing this blog post, a simple search on Google for “Google query fails” yields what can only be described as a large number of query fails. Furthermore, this approach relies on the data originator to have marked the data with pointers and tags.

Given these different approaches to unstructured data and the complexity involved, there is a decision process to apply:

1. Determine if the data is truly unstructured. If the data is derived from a structured database from an existing application or set of applications, then it is structured and will require domain expertise to inherit the values and information content without expending unnecessary resources and time. A structured, systemic, and repeatable process can then be applied. Oftentimes an industry schema or standard can be leveraged to ensure consistency and fidelity.

2. Determine whether only a portion of the unstructured data is relative to your business processes and use it to append and enrich the existing structured data that has been used to integrate and expand your capabilities. In most cases the identification of a Rosetta Stone and standard APIs can be used to achieve this result.

3. For the remainder, determine the value of mining the targeted category of unstructured data and perform a business case analysis.

Given the rapidly expanding size of data that we can access using the advancing power of new technology, we must be able to distinguish between doing what is necessary from doing what is impressive. The definition of Big Data has evolved over time because our hardware, storage, and database systems allow us to access increasingly larger datasets that ten years ago would have been unimaginable. What this means is that–initially–as we work through this process of discovery, we will be bombarded with a plethora of irrelevant statistical measures and so-called predictive analytics that will eventually prove out to not pass the “so-what” test. This process places the users in a state of information overload, and we often see this condition today. It also means that what took an army of data scientists and developers to do ten years ago takes a technologist with a laptop and some domain knowledge to perform today. This last can be taught.

The next necessary step, aside from applying the decision process above, is to force our information systems to advance their processing to provide more relevant intelligence that is visualized and configured to the domain expertise required. In this way we will eventually discover the paradox that effectively accessing larger sets of data will yield fewer, more relevant intelligence that can be translated into action.

At the end of the day the manager and user must understand the data. There is no magic in data transformation or data processing. Even with AI and machine learning it is still incumbent upon the people within the organization to be able to apply expertise, perspective, knowledge, and wisdom in the use of information and intelligence.