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HP Software's community for IT leaders // July 2013
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Learning to win with big data

The sports world is scoring big with advanced analytics. Learn what you need to know to follow their example.

Today’s big data analytics systems make it possible to have an interactive dialog with your data (for more on that, see our March article). And what’s great about that is not new answers to old questions: it’s discovering new questions that you never thought to ask. There is perhaps no place easier to perceive this critical difference in analytics capability than in the modern business of professional sports.

For decades, sports analysts relied on traditional box scores to keep tabs on the most obvious aspects of player performance. Today, sports teams are collecting incredibly nuanced data—how fast a player runs, or how many times a player took possession of a ball when it passed near them—and collating it with very different data, such as salary or left- or right-hand dominance, to create a depth of sports statistics that has never existed before.

“With the data that we have, you can capture and enhance data points you’re familiar with, but also things like distance and speed—things that, even if you’re watching a game, you can’t capture with your eyes,” says Neil Paine, user affairs coordinator for sports statistics company Sports Reference LLC. “The future is not going to be about analyzing the data you have, but collecting new and unique data.”

Guidelines for greater success

This idea of going far afield from the traditional view of data is relevant in every industry. The business equivalent of box scores—simple reports and spreadsheets to keep track of only the most painfully obvious threads—have provided dim guidance for too long. By availing themselves of the right technologies, today’s organizations can capture whatever data they want, and cross-reference it with any other data to blow the roof off the limits of what can be known about the business.

Sadly, the transition isn’t always smooth, especially in an industry like sports, where technology plays a tangential role. However, the experience of leading sports data experts has gleaned a few guidelines with universal applicability:

1. To get things off the ground, reduce the intimidation factor.

For some people, the size of the data and sheer number of potential insights is overwhelming. Help people ease into the technology by creating a limited pilot with a small number of well-defined intelligence targets.

“There are thousands of things you can do with the data,” recommends Brian Kopp, vice president of strategy and development at STATS LLC. “But you only really need five to get started. Once you’re comfortable with five, move forward with more.”

2. Resistance will be short-lived.

Historically speaking, the sports industry has not been on the cutting edge of computing technology. So if the world of professional athletics is warming to the big data analytics trend, you can be sure that the vast majority of other industries will adopt the new capabilities easily. Whatever resistance you’re getting from the business today, it won’t last. Start now with a small project, and you’ll demonstrate the potential and fast-track the growth curve for support.

3. Expect to confirm what you already know.

The groundbreaking baseball data analyst Bill James said that 80 percent of your data should tell you something that doesn’t surprise you at all; the other 20 percent should.

This ratio is a good rule of thumb beyond the realm of baseball. If your data doesn’t confirm a lot of assumptions you’ve already made about your business, skepticism is warranted. Examine your processes to root out errors in your formula, and use the real surprises to drive innovation.

4. Use your big data initiatives to foster inclusiveness and cooperation.

Managed incorrectly, the shift to big data analytics could create divisiveness in your organization. Make sure your analytics team remains humble and committed to the needs of the lines of business, regardless of how prosaic those needs might be. The goal is not to revolutionize the business, but rather to bring everyone together around reliable, consistent information that can inform a unified strategy.

To learn more about how companies like Sports Reference and STATS LLC are using big data to change what sports managers and owners can know about their teams, listen to the Vertica webinar.


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