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What Business Intelligence Thought Leaders Are Reading

What books have provided inspiration and insight for BI thought leaders?

By Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP

When BI thought leaders get together, they talk about wide range of interests: politics, the environment, popular culture, and many others, observes dashboard designer Stephen Few.

“It's not a surprise to me that the most innovative people, the ones we think of as thought leaders, have to have broad exposure to different perspectives and different ideas,” he told me the other day.

I asked several leaders what they’d been reading lately—books they might have picked up out of curiosity and found they'd learned something about BI.

One theme that stood out was communication, storytelling in particular. The most popular was Chip Heath’s Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007, Random House). Heath studied urban myths to reveal their sticky formula as entomologists might study African sand fleas. He came up with SUCCES: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. He found that these elements are the difference between a story you heard in high school that keeps getting retold and so many corporate reports that are dead on arrival.

Storytelling showed up again in Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (2006, Riverhead). Experts believed cholera arose from “miasma,” that foul air (from sources such as sewers and graveyards) that spread the disease. A 52-year-old physician developed an opposing theory that pinned the cause on contaminated water and waged a campaign against the dominant “miasma” theory. To his surprise, his simple map and not his more elaborate written evidence finally made the public believe him. Data visualization designers, take note.

The problem of stubborn but mistaken experts might be addressed by another book Few likes, Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton (2006, Harvard Business School Press), or Charles W. McCoy Jr.’s Why Didn’t I Think of That?(2002, Prentice Hall).

Sometimes we just need to see things in a larger frame. Daniel H. Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (2005, Riverhead) advocates it. “Slowly we’re realizing,” says Few, “that we need people who can think out of the box, who know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and can make decisions when they encounter novel situations.”

Zach Gemignani of Juice Analytics recommends Few’s books: Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten (2004, Analytics) and Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data (2006, O'Reilly).

He also recommends Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (2003, Norton), the story of how the Oakland A’s used statistics to build a winning team. Also The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering by Frederick P. Brooks (1995, Addison-Wesley Professional), which argues that communication, not technology, is a limiting factor in development.

Speaking of Juice Analytics, don’t miss its blog, especially the hilarious “Dictionary of Analytics Terms” (see

An entertaining volume on strategy comes from TDWI education director David Wells. He was nosing around a bookstore in the Singapore airport and found Strategy Bites Back: It Is Far More, and Less, than You Ever Imagined by Henry Mintzberg and others (2005, Prentice Hall). It’s a collection of essays about strategy from non-mainstream perspectives. “It’s the most interesting and thought-provoking reading I have done recently,” Wells wrote in an e-mail to me. “It kept me thinking and laughing throughout a long flight.”

One Amazon reviewer of Strategy Bites Back advises, “Forget Drucker.” Not so fast. Few recommends his compilation The Essential Drucker. Seeming to address BI, Drucker writes, “What is important is not the tools. It is the concepts behind them.” Implying the importance of broad reading, he calls management a “liberal art” that draws on knowledge of “humanities and the social sciences, psychology and philosophy, on economics and history…”

No manager or leader stands alone. Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science and Life by Albert-Laslo Barabasi (2002, Perseus) is on Stanford professor and BI scholar Jonathan Koomey’s list. All networks share certain characteristics and behavior, Barabasi writes. In short, self-organizing networks are like a “web without a spider.” They behave much like the Internet, with its hubs of a greatly varying number of connectors.

Big hubs—with connectors as thick as flights from JFK—tend to become even bigger. People say it takes money to make money. It also takes friends to make friends, and it takes knowledge to attain knowledge.

When BI thought leaders get together over drinks, to use a handy example, it’s no coincidence that the conversation roams far from BI. Each brings a mind with loads of connectors that tie to the other minds at the table in many ways: inspiration, knowledge, advice, experience, and personal references.

Connectors take nourishment. Many of the connectors started by reading widely with an open mind.

Ted Cuzzillo, CBIP is a freelance writer based in Point Richmond, CA. Send book titles and comments to [email protected].

About the Author

Ted Cuzzillo is an industry analyst and journalist in the business intelligence industry. He’s looking for anyone who tells stories with data or even thinks about it, and those who receive such stories. He’s researching best practices for storytelling with data, careers, reactions to storytelling with data, and possibly other issues. He asks that you contact him at [email protected] with a line or two about your involvement with data stories.

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