Businesses of all sizes are always looking for ways to increase revenue, decrease costs, and operate more efficiently. When I talk with midsize business owners, I hear the typical questions. Should we hire a developer to update our website and improve our SEO rankings? Should we invest less money in traditional advertising and invest more time in social media? After discussing these and other business topics for a while, we drift into that standard conversational filler — talking about the weather.
But since I am always interested in analyzing data from as many different perspectives as possible, when I talk about the weather, I ask midsize business owners how much of a variable the weather plays in their business. Does the weather affect the number of customers that visit your business on a daily basis? Do customers purchase different items when the weather is good versus bad?
I usually receive quick responses, but when I ask if those responses were based on analyzing sales data alongside weather data, the answer is usually no, which is understandable since businesses are successful when they can focus on their core competencies, and for most businesses, analytics is not a core competency. The demands of daily operations often prevent midsize businesses from stepping back and looking at things differently, like whether or not there’s a hidden connection between weather and sales.
One of my favorite books is Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The book, as well as its sequel, podcast, and movie, provides good examples of one of the common challenges facing data science, and more specifically predictive analytics since its predictions often seem counterintuitive to business leaders, whose intuition is rightfully based on their business expertise, which has guided their business success to date. The reality is that even organizations that pride themselves on being data driven naturally resist any counterintuitive insights found in their data.
Dubner was recently interviewed by Crysta Anderson about how organizations can find insights in their data if they are willing and able to ask good questions. Of course, it’s not always easy to determine what a good question would be. But sometimes something as simple as talking about the weather when you’re talking business could lead to a meaningful business insight.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.