Facebook Graph Search: The Power of the Nodes and Edges

According to Mashable, Facebook Graph Search could be it’s greatest innovation. I tend to agree. FB have eight years of Big Data (including almost over two billion new Likes each day) to help us identify products, services and brands that we might need through the experiences of those in our social network.

Actually, a graph consists of only two things; Nodes (people) and edges (their relationships) Analysis of these though can reveal much. The simplest is a measurement of neighbours, the number of edges and their direction. A node with a large number of inward edges (or indegree) can be thought of as popular. One with a large number of outward edges gregarious. If it were possible, Lady Gaga could make a whole boutique full of dresses out of her indegree. Simple analysis of these elements are behind ‘People You May Know’ features in LinkedIn, Chatter, Connections, Jive and Facebook to mention just a few.

New Nodes

Of course, the FB Graph includes other types of nodes (businesses, brands, products) and many other types of edge including the ubiquitous Like. FB also have demographics and psychographics because we surrender more information about ourselves to FB than we would feel comfortable doing in any other survey online or offline. We’re all concerned about privacy but generally end up somewhere around ‘what are you gonna do?’.

These simple elements add up to something very powerful. It’s possible not just to find French restaurants in Frimley but those that are preferred by frequent travellers to the Côte. Not just DIY stores nearby but those popular with power tool enthusiasts. Robert Putnam could have found countless examples for his book on the decline of social capital Bowling Alone. And it is just the beginning. Let’s not forget that those edges include ‘listened’, ‘read’, ‘watched’,’hiked’ and ‘cooked’ to name but a few of the verbs now residing in your facebook apps list and your personal social graph.

Big Data Breakthrough

This is a Big Data breakthrough for Facebook and puts some distance between them and their competitor, Google.  I am not sure that plus’ing is enough of an ‘edge’ at this stage. And for those that can’t see that FB and Google are competitors then remember that there is no revenue in Search. No one actually pays Google to organise the worlds information. Nor do we part with our cash for maintaing personal networks on Facebook. There is, however, a group of people willing to pay for connecting people to products they might enjoy. Advertisers. In other words there is revenue in creating new edges between nodes.  That’s the power of the graph.

The Sales Process; SPIN or SPIV

Redrackam

Last year I posted and tweeted a fair amount on the subject of sales process. Many, it seemed to me, were all too focused on the success of the seller with scant regard to the buyer. I argued that even more enlightened and consultative approaches have a problem of perspective. Buyers don’t believe they are ever in a selling cycle, they are in a buying cycle. Here, I am inclined to agree with thinkers like Brian Solis, Gary Vay-ner-chuk (sic) and Doc Searls, author of the Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, a work that describes a future that turns Customer Relationship Management upside down into Vendor Relationship Management.

With some ‘spare’ research time over the festive period I took a deeper look at the grandfather of consultative selling, SPIN.

SPIN, the grandfather of consultative selling, is based on extensive research by Huthwaite International and was first published in 1987 by Neil Rackham, Huthwaite’s founder, sales process veteran, NY Times best seller and regular speaker on sales and marketing. Anchored in objective studies, it has stood the test of time. It remains relevant well after it’s late 80’s origins when it probably challenged sales professionals with assertions that included high pressure selling results in less, not more, success.

ABC

The clarion call of traditional selling approaches is ‘ABC: Always be Closing’. Photocopier and vacuum cleaner sellers in the 80’s were brow-beaten (some just beaten) by their managers with repeated questioning that boiled down to ‘did you ask for the order?’. The assumption was that those bold enough to push for the order, will get it more often than those that wait for the right moment. Close harder and faster as a seller, the theory goes, and you will sell more. Huthwaite, however, saw no such correlation when they conducted studies in closing techniques like the assumptive close (‘when would you like to take delivery Sir?’) In fact on larger and more complex products and services, they saw a negative correlation between successful sales and the use of closing techniques. What’s surprising is that it needed any evidence to prove what most of us know instinctively; that few go back for more strong-arm selling.

Instead, Rackham proposes obtaining commitment or advances that progress the sale by degrees through stages that include investigation (the customer) whilst demonstrating capability (of the seller). Instead of applying pressure or leaving with unclear objectives (at the other extreme) he suggests a balanced approach. He proposes obtaining the highest realistic commitment the customer is able to give. Successful sellers, Rackham cautions, never push a customer beyond these achievable limits.

In fact Rackham turns the focus around. Instead of ‘asking for the order’ as quickly and as forcefully as possible he argues that closing is entirely dependant on the earlier stages of the customer engagement, notably putting an onus on the seller to rigorously investigate the customer and their needs in an extended prospecting and business value development phase.

NEEDS ARE A MUST

Needs evolve through distinct stages. They start as a fall from being fully satisfied but perhaps only marginally. We are discontent – but only moderately so. We will not act at this stage unless our dissatisfactions or desires more are more clearly understood.

This is the journey from implied needs (the process is not quick enough or takes too long) to more explicit ones (we need something more reliable because 50pc of our sales are on-line and increasing) Implied needs might be buying signals in smaller sales but certainly not in larger ones. Rather, they are a starting point. They need to be uncovered and developed. In fact, in the absence of explicit needs both buyer and seller have not done the math. They don’t understand what Rackham calls the Value Equation. This, stated simply, is that the seriousness of the problem must be greater than the cost of the solution. If it isn’t there will be no change to the status quo, no decision, no action, no purchase, no sale.

ANYWAY THAT’S ENOUGH ABOUT YOU

At some point, all sellers will want to talk about themselves, their company and their product. Actually, many can do this a little too early and a little too often. SPIN is about reducing this to a minimum, about demonstrating competence in solving the customers problems and addressing their needs. More specifically, rather than talking about product features (what SPIN calls advantages) which only meet implicit needs the seller spends the time identifying benefits that will address explicit needs.

Rackham’s research demonstrates that those talking about features and benefits are less successful. He illustrates this with a familiar scenario, the new product launch. Just before it is released the sales team receive extensive training in all the new features, flashing lights, bells and whistles. Unsurprisingly, this is what the sales team excitedly take out to their customers. What happens next is that sales invariably don’t meet expectations. Sometimes they tank. Everyone is surprised that their wunderkind hasn’t worked out. Then, as they shake their collective heads in confusion and disappointment there is often an unexpected upsurge. Customers have started buying again because the shine has worn off the product and focus has retuned to customer needs.

QUESTIONS QUESTIONS QUESTIONS

Rackham proposes a framework for asking the right questions to uncover implied needs and to develop them into explicit ones;

Firstly situational questions like ‘what are your revenues?’ and ‘how large is your sales team?’. These are all good background for the seller but of least interest to the buyer. Indeed they will quickly fatigue of this type of question.

More interesting questions might be ‘How is that working out for you?’, ‘Are you finding it easy to get the information you need? or ‘Does your budgeting process complete on time or frequently overrun?’. Obviously, these are questions that reveal business problems and uncover implied need. So far, so good but it would appear that many professional sellers stop here at a point.

Here, Rackham encourages sellers to drill into the need with implication questions to make the implied needs more significant and more urgent. At this point the seller should have the value equation at the forefront of their questions piling up implied needs until they far outweigh the cost of their solution. Implication questions uncover what other sales approaches call consequential pains. An example might be;

Q. How long does it take to pull the management report pack together?

A. No time at all really, we ask one of our finance analysts to do it.

Q. Do you know how long they spend on it?

A. They tend to pull it together in a single week, it’s not really a problem.

Q. All week?

A. Yes, I think so. Other things tend to go to the back of the queue in the last week of the month so I know it is only a week but all week.

Q. But they do at least get it done in a working week and in time for the management meeting?

A. Well, I have heard that they can end up working some of the weekend to complete it. It’s important to our management team and they know it.

Q. Really, how much of the weekend?

A. Well, now you come to mention it, they have started referring to it as the ‘TOYS Report Pack’ for ‘takes over your Saturdays’

Q. [Laughs] Can it involve more than one Analyst?

A. Yes, I think so. And now I think about it a little more maybe the S in TOYS could stand for Saturday or Sunday or both!

Q. [Laughs again] Is there a high turnover in Analysts?

A. There can be, it is a high pressure role because we run our business on information. I guess frequent working weekends does not help either.

At this stage the discussion has opened up into one about the cost of staff retention, the importance of management information and the implications of deferring less urgent, but still important finance activity. We can sometimes be oblivious to the business problems that surround us, we grow used to them, we mentally discount them like we do the creaky door or leaking tap until someone points them out to us afresh.

The problem with this is that implication questions focus on problems and leave customers feeling negative. The seller then should move on to need payoff questions such as ‘Is it important to solve the problem?’, ‘What would you do with the extra information if you had it?’ or ‘How would a faster machine help you?’. These are focused on the solution and what the customer’s world would look like if it were fixed. As the discussions about need payoff progress the buyer is also describing the benefits. What’s more, says Rackham, the buyer is more predisposed to your solution because they have shared their own perspective on the benefits of the sellers solution. The process of exploding implied needs into explicit ones would not be out of place in a consulting project with it’s focus on process and identifying the value of moving from the ‘as is’ to the ‘to be’.

There is a shift in SPIN selling from seller to buyer which is to be applauded. For example, it takes a completely contra view to objection handling. Some sales methods perhaps based on ‘bad medicine’ principles assert that the more objections a buyer raised, the more likely they are to buy. After all, they argue, each objection is a mini-selling opportunity. SPIN is about ensuring the dog didn’t eat your homework on the customer’s explicit needs. That way there are far fewer objections and those that remain are dwarfed by the need payoff.

SPIN OR SPIV?

Apparently Rackham preferred the term ‘value’ over ‘needs payoff’ but that would have made it SPIV selling. The term spiv has negative connotations, at least in the UK, so it didn’t make it into the final text. I am not sure spin has a positive connotation in the UK either thanks to Malcolm Tucker and Alastair Campbell.

It was interesting to get a perspective from my 21 year old Son who was listening to the audiobook in the car with me at one point. As he got out he commented that the author seemed to regard people as ‘cattle’. I am sure Rackham would emphatically reject this conclusion but it provides an insight into how those outside of the community of professional sellers react to language that objectifies buyers. In one jarring statement, Rackham describes how he has no problem with the use of closing techniques on unsophisticated customers. I emphatically do have a problem with this. Assuming and acting on commitment where there is none is wholly unacceptable.

One of the values (or need payoffs?) of approaches like SPIN is the very fact that they are a process. A prospective buyer is, by definition, faced with uncertainty. A sales process brings structure to their decision making, guiding them step by step through a universe of possibilities towards certainty and, ultimately, an outcome. All good. The problem for me is that even enlightened approaches like SPIN don’t go far enough. As buyers become more social and power shifts from process to people and from corporations to individuals  then the process will inevitably become increasingly buyer and not seller centred. Terms like objection handling and closing will be confined to productions of Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross.

SPIN is intended to drive out the explicit and quantifiable need of buyers and Rackham regards good sellers as problem solvers. This is commendable but it is no longer optional. As buyers become more social and power shifts from process to people and from corporations to individuals then the process will become increasingly buyer centered and, as sellers, we have no choice in the matter. Increasingly, in the networked age, processes like SPIN will not seem consultative enough. In fact, we will know we are there when the role of seller is indistinguishable from that of a consultant. It can’t come soon enough.

Decision Sourcing: Which jacket do you prefer?

We would really appreciate your vote from four different jacket design treatments for the upcoming book ‘Decision Sourcing‘. Click on the image for a closer look at each design.

If you like a treatment generally but want to suggest a change (perhaps to the typeface) then please feel free to add a comment.

Thank you

Gamification and Gamified Business Intelligence

Gamified

I have become somewhat preoccupied with gamification of late. After the usual reading and research concluded with some structured study with the Wharton School through the excellent Coursera program, it became apparent that it was less of a diversion than I first thought. Indeed, there is considerable overlap between the aims of gamification and the aims of Business Intelligence.

To understand why, let’s start with the  definition of gamification from Professor Kevin Webach, the course lecturer and also the author of ‘For the Win‘ which is;

“The Use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts”.

It’s an excellent, insightful and crisp definition. However it really only explains the ‘what’ but no the ‘why’. For this, I would refer you to Brian Blau and Brian Burke of Gartner who extend the definition as;

“The use of game mechanics to drive engagement in non-game business scenarios and to change behaviors in a target audience to achieve business outcomes”

Level 1

Both definitions are about using game elements in a non-game context but  Webach is being more inclusive whilst Gartner very specific. For Gartner is’s about business whilst Wharton include  external gamification and gamification for behavioural and social change. The former is gamification as a marketing device such as Foursquare. The latter is a rich and interesting area that would include Runkeeper and Zamzee encouraging us to be become a little fittter and OPower which, by comparing our energy usage to our peer group, helps us be more aware of our consumption.

The third Wharton category, internal gamification has the greatest overlap with Analytics, Business Intelligence and Performance Management. A definition of which can be derived from some minor modifications to the Gartner definition of gamification;

“The use of  analytics, business planning and key performance indicators to drive engagement  and to change behaviors in a target audience to achieve business outcomes”

Analytic applications are systems, sets of mechanics, to align, engage and improve the performance of the business. They, like a gamified system, are an abstraction. They are a derivation of business activities not the activities themselves. The numbers, charts and indicators become a new reality distinct from the business activity from which they are derived. They are, in a sense, gamified systems but with only a small subset of the rich set of (game) mechanics that might be made available. In fact I have argued for some time that this subset of mechanics is as woefully inadequate as the user experience/user interace design effort in most corporate analytic applications. We still think that a dashboard is a pretty cool interface.

Achievements

Business intelligence can, more often than it should, be driven by whatever data is available. Equally common is to deliver a system that is a marginal improvement in the information system it replaced but in a new tool or technology. The design will pay scant regard to how the information will really be used and are open to being ignored or even ‘gamed’. Measure a sales team on orders and there may be an increase in cancelled orders. Measure baggage handlers on the time it takes the first bag to arrive on a carousel and the second and subsequent bags might wait for the first bag on the next flight.

Internal gamification is designed around a deep understanding of the players (staff, workforce) and their motivations. It draws inspiration from an extensive palette of behavioural (game) mechanics.

Level Up

Business Intelligence then, could reasonably be defined as an early attempt to gamify the workplace. Sophisticated BI  intended to engage the workforce and align organisational behaviours through carefully designed elements of which analytics and key performance indicators were just a small subset, would be a game that many businesses would find worth playing.

What Has CRM Ever Done for Us?

Actually the Romans come out rather well when Reg asks the questions of a bunch of masked activists in Matthias’s house in ‘The Life of Brian’. The aqueduct was just the beginning. Would CRM fare so well in a contemporary and probably unfunny update of the classic scene?

What has it done for us? Don’t misunderstand me. I use salesforce, my chosen flavour of CRM, every day. I wouldn’t be without it. Everything I do is captured in those seemingly simple customer, contact and opportunity tabs. However, what has it ever done for me … as a customer?

I have just finished Doc Searl’s latest book, the Intention Economy. It is a jarring book which turns CRM on it’s head, instead describing a world where software helps customers manage their suppliers rather than the other way round. It manages to be visionary by illustrating with situations which are utterly everyday. As customers, like frogs on slow-boil, we have come to accept the unacceptable. We tolerate what should be intolerable.

For example, Doc makes the point that when he travels by air (not unlike me) he has no special dietary requirements, places few demands on cabin crew, is likely to offer up his seat to accommodate a family or couple travelling together and is willing to pay (a little rather than take out a mortgage) extra to reduce the stress of travelling because the novelty has long since worn off. What his frequent flyer programme knows about him (and mine about me) is the total miles we have travelled and our address. Hmmm.

Yesterday,  I received a ‘personal’ note from a high street chain that I used to visit often but haven’t been able to recently.  Let’s say it’s a shop for the body. I shop here because I admired their deeply principled founder and her stand on ethical, environmental and social issues. I also like smelling like a satsuma. Mostly though, I shop there because there is convenient outlet on Waterloo concourse my gateway into and out of London. Rather, there was an outlet. It closed down during the station refurbishments and has yet to reappear. The CRM system that delivered the ‘personal’ note to me notes that they hadn’t seen me in a long time and offered me a generous discount to return. So far, so good. However, the featured products were wild rose hand cream, lip butter and a free makeover. I am a modern man and I freely admit that I prefer the smell of citrus fruit to masculine musk but it didn’t seem like a particularly compelling selection even for me.

And, this is a business I respect. At least their CRM had  spotted that it had been an unusually long time between the last transaction.

Another on-line retailer that I have been ‘loyal’ to for years has been through a recent CRM upgrade. I now only receive the section of their clothing catalogue for men. They finally understand my gender and no longer assume that my wife and I automatically like the same brand because we pick out curtains together. They worked out that I am a male and that I have different shopping habits to my wife. Big whoop.

This is the reality of CRM and Big Data today. Companies at the top of their game, with the most sophisticated CRM have worked out households, genders and not much more. And B2B is generally not even close. Many direct mail (interruptions) that I receive in my office inbox don’t even get my name correct and few, if any, are relevant to my job title or role.

It is true that sophisticated relevance marketing exists. These are the types of systems that can tell when you have started and finished the Atkins diet but they require a level of exclusivity associated with a church service and a gold band rather than the somewhat lighter associations most of us have with our grocers, coffee shops or satsuma scented shower gel supplier.

The Romans did actually give us irrigation, underfloor heating and straight roads but what has CRM ever done for us? We need more than a wallet full of loyalty cards, an iphone full of apps, licensing terms that we accept without reading and  discount vouchers with a redemption date just expired at the time we want to use them. It has a long way to go before it makes good use of all of that data, all those cookies and screens of social analytics. Mostly CRM needs to respect that unless it is going to make good and positive use of all of that data, that customers might tire of waiting, take it all back and start building VRM. The clock is ticking.

Just Stop with the ‘Big Data is Just’

OK, I get it. You’re sceptical. You’ve seen stuff come and you’ve seen it go. To you big data is just BI, just data, just analytics for the hip kids, just a distraction or just hype and fad.

Except it isn’t. Big data is only ‘just’ analytics in the same way that cloud is ‘just’ asp or bureau. That is to say it isn’t at all.

It ‘aint hadoop either

Others define it in terms of the technology. I get this too. New tech is making it all possible and existing databases have been a barrier. New approaches like hadoop were borrowed from those that pioneered extracting value from enormous volumes of data. To the traditional data vendors, a terabyte was a big deal. They failed to notice that this was becoming standard in a home pc and that insurgent innovators were capturing, processing and mining mountains of data. They  didn’t keep up, so others had their lunch money and now they are playing catch-up.

But it would be wrong to define big data in terms of the innovation that allows it to happen. A little like defining fine dining as an activity conducted with knives, forks and a high quality napkin. It would be the most common mistake of the Big Data muggle.

The end of transaction oriented business

So if it’s not just ‘just’ and it’s not the technology … what is it?

It’s nothing less than a profound change in our approach to data. Historically, businesses managed themselves as a series of transactions. Occasional snapshots if you will. Only the essential financial and operational interactions between them and their customers. A quotation, an order, a despatch note and most importantly an invoice. Early on-line commerce  began to change this. Every gesture a customer made on their shopping journey could be captured. An abandoned basket in a supermarket tells the store manager nothing. Online, the same shopping cart could tell us that the delivery times are too long, the accessories were out of stock or that the secure shopping statement was in the wrong place. For the first time, so much data was being generated that ‘traditional’ analytics started to creak and groan and most of this type of analysis took place outside of corporate BI. It was ‘special’ click stream, needed specialised tools and the BI specialist and vendor shook their heads at it’s lack of structure. Where were the columns, rows and indexes.

This was just the beginning. Social platforms don’t just allow the analysis of shopping behaviours but all behaviours. If a customer comments, complains, compliments or converses in general about you or your brand, it is possible to know. It’s no longer heresay or anecdote, it’s available from the blogsphere or the Twitter firehose. It’s data.

Another beginning

Actually, that was just the beginning of the beginning. New classes of devices that can generate more data than the most active surfer or shopper are boosting the on-line population. Forget smart meters and the internet fridge, at least for now. Think more about ultra-low cost devices that remind you to water the yukka, feed the guppy or take your medication. If you forget any of these, particularly the medication, they will probably tell others too. Connected asthma inhalers can provide insight into air quality and cars that connect with your insurers who adjust your insurance premiums because your acceleration and braking patterns suggest that you are driving like you are on a track day rather than on the hanger lane gyratory. Oh and my new pebble watch (when it arrives) will add to the billions of facts, snippets and streams being added to that one big database in the sky. The cloud.

Ambient Data and why Big Data is Big

Big data represents a profound change. In our book Decision Sourcing, Gower, 2013, we refer to it as ‘ambient’ rather than big data. Ambient because we have always been surrounded by our thoughts, gestures, actions and conversations but they have never been data before. They were lost (as Rutger said) ‘like tears in rain’.

Today, we are approaching an an age where it is possible and practical to know everything that there is to know. Everything that is (to use an arcane legal expression) ‘uttered and muttered’. That’s what makes it big. Really big. Teradata think a Tera is big but it’s just a walk to the shops compared to Big Data.

Oh no  it is not ‘just’ anything. It is the beginning of the most significant shift in our industry since it began. The complexities are many, the data as varied as it is voluminous but the prize is knowledge and insight much of it predictive. Indeed, everything we have done to this point has been in preparation for the age of Big Data.

If Big Data is just anything right now … it’s just the beginning.

Sales Cycles Suck

Sales cycles are a preoccupation for sales professionals? Where is the deal in relation to the cycle? Is the prospect progressing through the cycle as forecast? Organisations invest thousands of man hours in training and countless more in implementing them. There are more than two hundred and fifty titles on Amazon alone that cover the subject. They can be strategic, complex, intuitive even scientific. Take a detailed look at the range of books on offer and you would be forgiven for thinking that most sales cycles are broken. The majority of materials are all about simplifying, mastering, rethinking, shortening and taking control of them. In other words, sellers feel that theirs are too difficult, too long or out of control.

The problem, however, is more fundamental. They suck. They generalise behaviours on the assumption that if you put prospective buyers in a wide funnel at one end and take them through a series of qualifying and processing steps that they will pop out the other end and the cash register will ring. Sounds logical enough but they assume that it’s all about the seller. The buyer is reduced to a target, an object, a mark. If you are not offended by that you should be.

I for one, don’t want to be in their sales cycle. If I am in any cycle, I am in my buying cycle.

A rep from an alarm company once called me after I chose his competitors product.  As far as he was concerned, he had the better product, a competitive price, had answered all my questions and managed all my objections. He had run the perfect ‘sales cycle’ and yet I hadn’t behaved in the way that he predicted. He had probably forecast me at 100% to his manager. His frustration was palpable. I went with a slightly more expensive option even though the products were broadly comparable. It made no sense to him and he told me so. The trouble was his competitor had been recommended to me by a trusted friend. It aced anything he could say or do and it wasn’t on his sales cycle. However, it was on my buying cycle.

Professional sellers often argue that they don’t mind being in someone else’s sales process at all. In fact many claim they actually like it. However, probe further and it becomes clear that this is out of a respect for their own craft. It’s rather like a musician being asked up from the audience to guest with the band. They like being sold to because they get the rules, understand the techniques and can take an informed and objective view of someone else’s performance.

Most of us though find them awkward, unsatisfactory and disagreeable. They are are built from the sellers perspective. They are all about closing and commissions. The buyer is someone with a business problem that needs a solutions but this is incidental to the fact that they are a budget holder and can make a purchasing decision. Not that a sales process is a bad thing. Not at all. It is only sensible to make sure that expensive resources requires to implement sophisticated solutions are allocated to the right buyers at the right time. However, any sales approach that doesn’t have the buyer at it’s centre is fundamentally flawed. Unless the sales cycle is unambiguously built around the needs of the purchaser to the extent that at it’s core, it is indiscernable from the buying cycle. It a sales cycle that sucks.

Unplugged but Connected

A funny thing happened at Waterloo this week. Whilst walking from the over-ground to the underground, a man, about my age and similarly suited, asked me which line he should take for Covent Garden. At the same time, a similar conversation was taking place between two women walking alongside us. One was offering advice to the other on the District line. The ‘askers’ went one way and the ‘answerers’, she and I, another. We caught each others eye, struck by the small coincidence. As we walked on together, we had a brief exchange.  We observed that the coincidence would have been unremarkable a few years ago but today these questions usually  get asked of a device not of other people.

In all that I enjoy about the convenience of Siri, my Starbucks app, Tube Planner Deluxe and Google Maps I still value these interactions. It was a a rare(ish) set of human associations on the way to the the Waterloo and City Line an experience for me that is usually far from human. It was a couple of minor but briefly important connections quickly uncoupled once everyone was headed in the right direction. Whilst I was unplugged from my calendar, email, social platforms, phone and playlist it transpired that I was still fortunate enough to be very much connected to people.

Information Curation 1 dot 2

The big, fat and very cool Kabocha
At the end of a jetty on a beach near Benesse House, the big, fat and very cool Kabocha

Dot to Dot: In the previous Post

In part one we examined how the curatorial process is one that is relevant to the way in which businesses make informed decisions. We examined how Frances Morris, curator of the Kusama exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2012, dealt with abundance the most pressing issue for those of us dealing with exponentially increasing data volumes today. We also saw that curation has parallels with analysis. One that starts with very few assumptions, perhaps an inkling that there is a story to tell, but then becomes more focused as evidence is sifted, examined and understood.

In this, second part, we look at filtering, relevance and how the curatorial process helps us understand which comes first … data or information.

Relevance not Completeness

As I listened Morris at the Tate, it was clear that the story she wanted to tell was as much a product of the things she left out as it was the things she included. Morris described  how she visited a site on the Japanese island, Naoshima, to see an example of Kusama’s famous pumpkins. Perched at the of end of a pier, jutting into the Inland Sea, she decided that to take it out of context would be to lose something of the truth. This lead to, perhaps, her most controversial decision amongst Kusama’s many fans, to not include one of Kusama’s recurring themes in the summer exhibition. The pumpkins, similarly to the most frequently used data, were popular. They were well known and well understood. However, they didn’t bring anything new. At the end of the pier, they were relevant and contextual. In an exhibition intended to deliver insight into ‘Kusama’s era’s’, the key points at which the artist had reinvented herself they added nothing new.

Story First

One of the most telling characteristic of Morris’s curatorial process was that the story she wanted to tell was not limited by the art. Kusama was a leader in the 60’s New York avante garde movement. She was outlandish and outspoken, sometimes shocking. Not all of this is obvious from her art but it was an important thread in Morris’s story. To remedy this she chose to exhibit documents and papers that gave Kusama a voice. Clippings, letters and personal artefacts enriched the story. The result was a much more complete picture of an artist who’s influence on culture and society had as much to do with her activism, performance art and outrageous ‘happenings’ as her art.

Sometimes, as analysts, we limit our story by what is in the database or data warehouse. Smart decisions should be informed but that doesn’t mean to the exclusion of other forms of knowledge. That which is anecdotal and tacit alongside the ‘facts’ might provide a more complete and accurate picture. Information exists outside of columns and rows.

Joining the Dots

Does the curatorial process deliver insight? Does it ultimately leave it’s visitors with the “facts” insofar as we can as they relate to life and art. The test would be Kusama’s reaction to Morris’s exhibition when she visited for a private viewing before it was opened to the public. It seems the answer is an overwhelming yes. At one point, as Morris walked Kusama around the exhibition, she wept. The collection which spanned nine decades of an extraordinary life had struck a deep and personal chord. This visceral reaction was an acknowledgement that it was an essential truth from perhaps the only one who knew, in this case, what the truth really was.

Knowledge does not leap off a computer screen or printed page any more than the life of an artist leaps off a gallery wall. It is a synthesis of data and information. To deliver a report, chart or scorecard is not to deliver knowledge. The job is only part done. The information needs to be socialised, discussed, debated and supplemented with what we know of our customers and products.  Neither is the process just ‘analysis’. It is one of selecting that which is relevant, excluding that which is not and enriching with the experiences and opinions of those in the business who’s expertise is not captured in rows and columns. In a world where we are overwhelmed with information, knowledge and understanding requires curation.

The nine decades of Yayoi Kusama at the Tate. 

Frances Morris discusses and explores Yayoi Kusama’s life and work. Taking the audience through her curatorial processes, Morris will map out the exhibition from its origins to completion. The curator will also reflect on her personal journey with Kusama, having had the opportunity to work closely with her over the last three years.

Information Curation: 1 dot 1

Connecting the Dots

kusama3_bodyOn an uncharacteristically warm Summer evening in 2012 I made my way into the Tate Modern as everyone else was making their way out. It was part of my work to understand the curatorial process and its relevance to information management through one of the Tate’s infrequent but excellent curator talks. This one, from Frances Morris, concerned the recent and enormously popular Kusama exhibition.

 

The notion that curation is an emerging skill in dealing with information is not a new one. It is covered by Jeff Jarvis in his blog post ‘Death of the Curator. Long Live the Curator’ where Jarvis applies them to the field of journalism. It is also the subject of Steven Rosenbaum’s excellent book ‘Curation Nation’ which examines the meme more broadly.

 

Abundance

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is prolific. Her work span the many decades of her life, first in rural Japan then New York in the 60’s and in contemporary Tokyo today. It is enormously varied. Her signature style of repeating dot patterns, whilst the most famous, represents only a small part of a vast and sprawling body of work. It is the perfect artistic allegory for information overload. Kusama has too much art for any one exhibition in the same way that information professionals in the age of Big Data have too much information for any one decision.

 

Morris, I figured, must have wrestled with Kusama’s prodigious nature. The problem is not one of assembling a coherent and factual account. Instead, it is one of separating out that which is relevant and that which is extraneous. It is a process of  building a series of working hypotheses and building a story that is a reality, that is a ‘truth’.

 

Analysis and Curation

Like many managers, Morris had a vague sense of the story she wanted to tell but the final story could only be told through material facts, works or ‘data’.  At first, she considered, selected, dissected and parsed as much as possible. Over time Morris selected works through more detailed  research. She travelled extensively spending time with Kusama herself in a psychiatric institution which has (voluntarily) been Kusama’s home since 1977. She also visited locations important to Kusama including her family home and museums in Matsumoto, Chiba and Wellington, New Zealand where others had curated and exhibited her work. This parallels the analytical process. One of  starting with very few, if any assumptions, and embarking a journey of discovery. Over time, through an examination of historical and contemporary data points, the story begins to unfold.

 

In the Next Post (1 dot 2)

Already we can see that curating is a process of research and selection. It has strong parallel’s with early stages of information analysis. In the next post we will look at filtering, relevance and how the curatorial process helps us understand which comes first … data or information.