Rethinking Data

This analysis appeared April 30, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section

Data and their application have been a travel industry fixation since ADS was discovered over 30 years ago. When it became practical to collect the specifics of what travel customers were buying, suddenly it was an essential management task, effective competition hinged on being the best data manipulator, and travel managers were left to wonder what they should do with the piles of reports TMCs were cheerfully offering.

Most people are still wondering. Making better decisions that are enabled by travel data is a goal industry experts, acknowledge, respect, desire to achieve, and find surprisingly elusive.

A correct and productive data strategy for the travel industry is not difficult to identify, but its successful implementation requires discarding several cherished ideas.

Big Data…Big Deal

Some years ago, the CEO of a major national TMC (herein nameless) was fond of telling industry groups that it once “came to me in a flash of light that I was really in the information business.”

As I worked for a major competitor, I was also fond of telling the same story–with full attribution to its author. I added that perhaps his next corporate account proposal would be successful if he offered just reports…and no tickets.

Travel is not an information business; it is a service business and many of the most indefensible and irrational travel products were conceived when people lost sight of that fact. Where data support the delivery of effective and affordable customer service, analysis has a role.

Analysis for its own sake has few uses and is something for which most travel managers have a difficult time writing a check.

The current hot topic in reporting circles is “big data,” (ten years ago it was “data warehousing”). Apart from the fact that big data means lots of data from multiple sources, most people are challenged to explain its business rationale.

Under most conditions, “big data” is a term without meaning in the travel industry. Effective managers in all sectors of the industry need realistic business analysis goals, without regard to the size or complexity of a data set. Collecting the most data sounds highly scientific to most people and from that they incorrectly infer that the exercise must be valuable and that ill-defined real-world applications are justified.

Big data might have a role in such predictions as what travelers will buy, but even there the variables are so complex as to confound all but the most determined and expert analysts.

Where’s Your Talent?

Decision support tools for the travel industry have proven difficult to build and maintain, and the few companies that produce truly good ones are highly underrated for the value they deliver. A successful decision support tool enables better, more informed business decisions that cannot necessarily be anticipated when the system and the databases that sustain it are conceived.

As essential to such a system’s success as the skill with which it was designed is the insight it enables for its human operator. Systems people are prone to highlight data, reports, and analysis while overlooking the fact that a skillful, insightful, talented operator is what moves decision support into action.

The system’s role is to make that talent productive.

Without recognizing the role and composition of decision support, travel data analysts are likely to dive down any number of rabbit holes looking for new projects. One good example is the current fascination with data analysis projects that have subjective outcomes.

Systems that contrive to use data for calculating such things as traveler dissatisfaction with policy are ill-conceived in my view. A “dissatisfaction” report cannot escape the subjective and occasionally irrational nature of what it attempt to measure, a problem which is compounded by dozens of other variables that combine to make the result about as meaningless as arguing that green is better than blue.

Successful corporate travel data analysis is built upon clear business goals, and supported by decision support tools that empower insight and better conclusions in their human users.

They recognize the elegance found in simplicity and employ the shortest, most efficient way to deliver their results, and the travel managers using them do well to require specific answers from them to their real-world problems.

Managers and Leaders

In a 1961 address, President John F. Kennedy called for the United States to commit itself to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” before the 1960′s ended. This goal was advanced together with a number of other national goals the president put forth at that time.

The space program, undoubtedly among the most enlightened and visionary initiatives of the 20th century, brought about untold advances in all scientific fields.  Among its short-term goals was to show the superiority of U.S. science, engineering, management, and political leadership.

Kennedy speaks of the initiatives he has just announced and says that we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Few of us will be called upon to motivate an entire nation to action, but in the small ways we are asked to lead others, remember Kennedy’s words and also remember that doing hard things is not only possible, it creates often insurmountable obstacles to competitors and adversaries.

Managing for peak performance is one of the most difficult tasks you’ll ever attempt.  Whether your business is large or small, and whether you have major development projects in progress or simply want someone to handle training for three people, the formula for managing technology routinely eludes most people.

The first key to managing is recognition that management is the wrong word and the wrong premise.

I’ve always taken the somewhat extreme position that few things of real worth were ever built, assembled, found or perfected by managers.  True excellence in any field comes from differentiating between managers and leaders.

Once that step is made, it’s possible to do truly great things.  An army lead by managers is composed of conscripts and mercenaries because the people actually doing the work neither wholly believe in nor accept the cause for which they labor.

Likewise, projects or offices staffed by people who just put in their time as long as their paychecks keep coming are ultimately destined for mediocre results from partial commitments and average efforts.

Only when an army is truly led, and when the efforts of the participants are measured by the fact that they wish they could do more, do conscripts become patriots.

In a business sense, the ability to go beyond what everyone else is doing or to take a giant step is driven by personal commitments from exceptional people–the kind who will do anything for the right leader.

Leadership is so elusive that you almost never see it in business. No doubt you can think of many people who have been reasonably successful while managing.

But if you know of anyone who did something extraordinary in business–developed a radically new product, launched an enterprise with no capital and little experience, or did what others had tried to do and failed–chances are part of the reason is that this individual stopped managing and started leading

Given enough money, time and staff, you can complete a project and get workable results–results that also will be fairly common (uncreative), rigid and not years ahead of the competition, by managing people who simply put in time.

Most businesses find this formula too expensive and limiting to be useful.

Achieving the exceptional result–something very difficult to replicate and extremely valuable to your business–depends on attracting, motivating, leading and keeping the right people. Don’t blame the staff for the lesser result–the fault is usually at the top.

Ernie Pyle, the great World War II news correspondent, once wrote that the success of any enterprise is determined by the morale of the group. Morale, he said, depends on two factors: commitment to the team and complete confidence in its leaders.

  • A leader stands at the head of the group and asks the other members to follow as he addresses the tasks before them.  A manager asks the group members to work as hard as they can, but measures his own success by different standards.
  • A leader doesn’t ask anyone to do things he hasn’t or wouldn’t do it himself. A manager thinks most jobs are for underlings and that he has “special skills.”.
  • A leader shows the kind of genuine commitment to the project he expects everyone else to show; by implication, he wouldn’t be involved if he didn’t believe in the project. A manager just follows orders and puts in time.
  • A leader has the highest professional and personal standards. A manager will often tell others to do what it takes to get by.
  • A leader holds his position because he’s shown he has what it takes to get the job done.  A manager often occupies his position because he’s been there the longest, knows somebody or just happened to be appointed to the position.
  • A leader doesn’t necessarily know everything, but as long as he can apply the skills of other experts, the project can succeed.  A manager feels he might fail personally if someone else is shown to know something he perhaps should.
  • A leader puts the project first–if it fails he fails. A manager usually has somewhere else to affix blame.

The biggest problems to be faced in any type of project are almost always management, and not operations-based. To successfully overcome them, you don’t need smarter people: you need to become the type of person smarter people will follow.  You and I can both look at most organizations in our industry and see that they’re not performing at peak efficiency.

Morale, something most managers never seem to notice, is among the primary indicators.  Leadership doesn’t wholly take the place of money, or the right tools, or skilled professionals, but it does give these elements a chance to do something really useful.

You can produce real competitive advantages, but you’ll rarely ever succeed until leadership becomes first priority.


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