Books That Link Analytics, Big Data And Leading Change

Last week, at the end of my class in Analytics and Leading Change, one of the required courses in Columbia University’s Masters Program in Applied Analytics, my students asked for books I’d recommend that provide more detail than we could cover in the course. It turns out that others are also interested in a good library of books about analytics from the viewpoint of an organization’s leaders.

You’ll see that these are not textbooks about analytics or machine learning techniques – there are plenty of those. Instead, this reading list is the next step for those folks who understand the techniques and now want the insights from their work to have an impact on and provide value to their world.

Although most of these books were published in the last decade, there are also some classics on the list going back fifty years. And I’ve chosen mostly popular books because frankly they are written in a compelling way that is accessible to all leaders.

With that introduction, here are my recommendations.

1.     On the experience of doing analytics and seeing its impact:

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

The movie, Moneyball, starred Brad Pitt as the hero of the first and most storied use of analytics in professional baseball. For people in the field of analytics, what could be better than a movie about your skills helping the underdog. But like all movies, it tended to gloss over or exaggerate situations for the benefit of a good, simple plot.

The book that Lewis wrote originally is subtler and is a good case study of the human side of introducing analytics in a tradition-bound field. Tying it all up, his more recent book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, is the story of the collaboration between Kahneman (see below) and Tversky.

The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t by Nate Silver

Nate Silver is probably the best-known analytics practitioner by those not in the business themselves, due to his work over the years, especially for the New York Times and in relation to high visibility elections. This is his review of the ups and downs in using analytics, offering lessons especially from sports and politics.

Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg

Although sometimes a bit over the top and now five years old, it is a thorough description of the use of analytics in election campaigns. Election campaigns are good examples of analytics because they are both well-known and there is a huge amount of data concerning elections and the voters who determine their outcomes.

Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity — What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves by Christian Rudder

The author is the co-founder and former analytics lead for OkCupid. Not surprisingly, much of the book is about dating choices, but he goes way beyond that to uncover insights about various social attitudes, including racism, from the large amount of data he had in his hands both at his former company and elsewhere.

How Not To Be Wrong: The Power Of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

Since analytics is essentially a mathematical art, Ellenberg’s book about mathematical thinking is important preparation for the field. It also provides numerous examples of how to present quantitative insights in a way that non-experts would understand.

2.    On expanding the normal range of analytics:

Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive Research in the Social Sciences by Eugene Webb, et al

I’ve added this fifty year old classic to the list because even in a world of big data we don’t necessarily have all the data we need, either in our computer systems or in the physical world.  This book reminds us to observe indications of phenomenon that are not already available – such as the influence of an individual measured by the wear and tear on the entry to his/her office space. It also points out the need to always include metadata in our analysis since that is often revealing.

How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business by Douglas Hubbard

Somewhat picking up the same theme, this book helps both the business executive and the analytics practitioner to be more creative in measurement, especially when it comes to things that people haven’t so far been able to offer good metrics for.

Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler

This is a book about how social networks influence us in ways we hadn’t considered before. As they say: “How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you think, feel and do.” I suppose a good example is how their observation that you’ll gain weight by being connected to overweight people in a social network has itself become a meme. In its own way, this book is an interesting work of analytics.

Just as important is its elaboration of how to study social networks since an understanding of the network of influencers in any organization is essential to anyone who wants to change the behavior of the people in that organization.

Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic

The author was part of Google’s analytics team, which is the analytics equivalent of working at the Vatican if you’re a Roman Catholic theologian.  Her emphasis in on how to show the insights of analytics work and to tell a story about those insights. In a world of all kinds of data visualization tools and fads, her advice is clear and evidence-based.

3.    On the way that the human mind perceives the insights of analytics and might or might change as a result:

Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations by Dan Ariely

Professor Ariely, formerly of MIT and now at Duke, is one of the more creative experimenters in psychology and he quickly reviews both his own and others’ research results. The theme of this short book is that the payoff which often makes a difference in human behavior is not necessarily a financial reward and that sometimes financial incentives even backfire. This is important for leaders of change in organizations, particularly big corporations, to understand.

Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I’ve written about the work of Nobel Prize winner and Princeton Professor Kahneman before, most recently in “What Do We Know About Change”. This describes what Kahneman has learned from a lifetime of research about thinking and decision making. His work on how people process – distort – quantitative statements is especially relevant to analytics experts who need understand the cognitive biases he describes.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

The Heath brothers, popular business writers, have done a good job in this book of explaining what’s been learned in recent psychological research – see Kahneman and Ariely, for instance – without dumbing it down so much that the key points are lost. In doing that well, they also provide the leader of change and analytics some good ideas on how to present their own results and getting their organizations to switch to a more analytics-oriented outlook.

4.     On the strategic linkage between leading change and analytics

The Dance of Change by Peter Senge, et al

This is another classic that goes beyond the usual cookbook approach found in most books on “change management”. Yet, Senge and his colleagues anticipated the more recent approaches to change management which is about something more than just getting a single project done. For Senge, the goal he established was to help create learning organizations. While he does not focus on analytics, this book should particularly resonate with analytics professionals since they now have the tools to take that learning to new and more useful levels than in the past.

I could easily expand this list, as could many others, but this “baker’s dozen” books will provide a good rounded education to start.

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved @NormanJacknis

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