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Author's profile photo Oliver Huth

Triathlon of Data – It takes more than one discipline to succeed

The current dynamic global economic climate with the pandemic and geopolitical shifts has made the relevance of data even more apparent and important for any business and employee. However, it has also highlighted that many enterprises are missing elements in their data and analytics program, leading to analytics projects that may underdeliver on expectations. To articulate the key components of a data and analytics initiative, I will bring it to life via the “Triathlon of Data” – with the greatest triathlete of all time, Jan Frodeno. While Jan needs to master the complexity of Swim, Bike & Run, in the pursuit of unlocking the value of data you need to integrate, manage and use the data. The ones that are capable to manage this in a holistic fashion will outpace their competition in the long run.

It all starts with the SWIM – from 1500 meters in the Olympic distance, in which Jan won Gold in Beijing 2008 to 3.8km in the IRONMAN distance, in which Jan won the World Championships in Hawaii in 2015, 2016 and 2019. To master the swim on race day, the following aspects matter in training:

·  Master Any Style. Master Any Type of Data. For the swim, freestyle is the common stroke, a good swimmer builds his form through versatility. Mixing in different swimming strokes – breaststroke, backstroke & butterfly – and speed ranges is key for success. The right technique in place saves years of effort & frustration. The same holds true for data integration. In a modern data and analytics architecture, you need to have the right mechanism to get in both structured and unstructured data types as well as internal and external data sources to get in the required information for your downstream data management tasks.

·  Embrace Any Stroke. Embrace Any Data Point. A good swim session is characterized by a good feeling for the water. While it might sound strange for non-swimmers, being able to grasp how you move your body forward using the element of water for you, makes the swim more effective. In Data Integration, having a manifold strategy for every single record is equally important for a resilient setup. Consequently, you need to have mechanisms in place that either allow for live acquisition, real-time or enterprise-grade scheduling to ensure the right data point is onboarded at the right time as required.

·  Get in Any Session. Get in Any Volume of Data. Lastly, training volume in swimming is key to put down a stellar performance on race day. While in distance- and time the swim is the shortest discipline in a Triathlon, it requires a tremendous amount of discipline to get the volume in. Looking at Jan Frodeno’s Data from 2015-2021, he swims on average 6x the race distance 5 times a week. Needless to say, that the ability to handle big volumes is key for data integration as well. If you miss a record or relevant data set, your aggregated values will not work out. With the increasing growth of relevant data sources, being able to ingest and store the huge volume of data rounds up a powerful data integration setup.

Ultimately – in both the SWIM and in Data Integration – it all comes down to one brutal truth: You cannot win, but surely lose. If you miss the right bike pack due to a bad swim, you put yourself in a difficult situation for the rest of the race. If you do not manage to get the required data into your platform, all further data models, ML/AI, and analytics remain unpopulated.

The second part of a triathlon is the BIKE discipline. While in the Olympic distance you can ride in a pack and benefit from drafting, the long-distance triathlon that Jan Frodeno focuses on is currently 180km effort where the following three aspects count:

·  Ensure the right position. Ensure the right quality. Due to the law of physics, the optimal position on the bike is crucial to effectively turn the applied power in watts into speed forward. As any watts generated means calories burned and fatigue created, being efficient requires continuous improvement of the bike setup through testing with sensors and in the wind tunnel. For an efficient data and analytics setup, this attention is required for data quality. Only when you can make sure that your data foundation is set up properly, all modelling on top will play out as expected. Many projects fail because they overlook the importance of this topic the same way Jan can only be successful if he becomes one with his bike.

· Live the right mindset. Live the right agility. The bike section of the race represents 80% of the distance and roughly 60% of the spent time, so staying focused and motivated on the bike is of upmost importance. This is where the approach of breaking down the big task into small, reachable pieces is what helps Jan to keep the positive energy. Looking for the next aid-station, support crew, etc. helps to change the perspective and sets checkpoints towards the bigger picture. The same mindset is required for successful data management. Both with a Land & Expand approach as well as with an iterative setup that allows to test-drive data management assets, you manage to keep everybody involved motivated and to show that you are still on the right track. Long gone are the 2 years projects that are based on hundreds of pages of requirements that are handed over when the business environment has shifted already.

· Choose the right pace. Choose the right platform. With the right position and mindset in place, you need to decide on your pacing – taking into account the route, your competition and the required energy for the following run performance. This economic trade-off holds true for data management as well. You should only spend as much technical and personnel resources as demanded for the use case and consumption at hand. Consequently, you need to choose a platform that elastically allows you to adjust resources to serve both the small investigation project and the enterprise-wide rollout with thousands of data consumers.

In a nutshell, the second discipline is all about setting the foundation for the desired success. Lead with your ultimate goal in mind, making the right decisions to be able to act – not react!

Finally, the RUN stands between handing off the bike and conquering the finish line. In every step of the marathon, you will feel your previous decisions and the following aspects count to ensure success – everything pays off when everything comes together:

·  Analyze your bodies signals. – Analyze signals in the data. As in triathlon it is not a standalone marathon, it is key to adapt your race strategy to both your physical condition as well as to the external conditions. It is a common mistake to start the run too fast or underestimate the impact of temperature, especially in Kona, Hawaii during the World Championships. Making internal and external signals transparent, understandable, and actionable is the foundation of your analytics as well. Before predictions or planning is added on top, it is key to present the status with all the relevant and timely insights to the user.

·  Plan your way forward. – Plan your way forward. Even though you might have covered 80 to 95 % of the overall race distance, during the marathon you will be facing doubts and be questioning your strategy. A key recipe for success is to think ahead about your finish and what it will mean for you. Picturing the future helps you in the current situation to move forward. The same benefits hold true for predictions and planning in your data and analytics setup. While visualizations help to understand past performance, predictive analytics and planning capabilities are key to put your leaders in a position to make educated forward-looking decisions and act with confidence. This is not a one-off exercise but can be conducted at any time when variables change, and a new challenge needs to be factored in.

·  Make confident decisions. – Make confident decisions. With the right understanding of the current situation and constantly adapting the plan, you are able to make confident decisions. This helps you to stay calm – for a triathlete in the heat of the Energy Lab in Kona, for businesspeople in the heat of discussions with stakeholders and peers. Being able to make the winning decisions in the run, means the strategies with the swim and bike paid off. The right decisions will leverage any data investment very quickly, and along the way you will learn things to shape your decisions in ways that could never be made based on pure gut feeling.

The days of when a triathlete who was superior in only one discipline could win an IRONMAN race are gone. Being able to excel in all three disciplines and make data-driven decisions are what make Jan so talented and able to cross the finish line first. Taking every discipline and its dependencies seriously, that’s what makes a triathlon the endeavor it is and what both professionals and amateurs love about it.

There is a nice tradition in triathlon that holds true for data and analytics in a similar fashion: Anybody who finishes within the time limits is a winner. If you take a superior decision and master the complexity of versatile data, this is what it is all about. And in modern self-service architectures, more often than ever, individuals are empowered to cover all of the three disciplines in a unified system – from picking data assets (from the catalog or marketplace), leveraging graphical modeling or citizen data scientist tools, and then bringing stories to life that they or their stakeholders can consume.

· Watch SAP’s Data & Analytics Partnership Video with Jan Frodeno here.

· Relive the SAPPHIRE NOW 2021 Session with Jan and Irfan Khan right here.

·  Check out the SAP Data & Analytics solutions Jan uses for his training and business data right here.

·  Follow the #DataWednesday story on Jan’s Instagram account right here.

·  Read SAP’s News Announcement on the Data & Analytics Partnership on the SAP News Center right here.

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