Aug 21, 2013

What If Nazi Germany Had Excel?

Map of Operation Bagration
Yesterday I read an article about how data analysis solution would significantly reduce the cost of healthcare in US. After some illustration of the rising healthcare costs, a solution was proposed with introduction of fraud detection methods and tools. Fraud does impact the overall costs but I am sure it is just a part of the problem. It was obviously a paid article to promote a product line as the savior of our world. However, it provoked me thinking once again about the place of analytics in the decision-making and management processes. Well balanced views are rare as everyone promotes their own subject as crucial success factor - analysts are no different and the current hype with analytics and Big Data multiplies (by a factor greater than one) their advertising. To make things more fun, this line of thought could answer the geeky question of would Nazi Germany be more successful if they had a powerful analytic tool at their hands?

A great source of inspiration and examples for application of analytics came from the Engineers of Victory book I recently read and reviewed. One of the first successes of modern analytics came during the years of the WW2. Securing the safety of the convoys in the Atlantic and winning the Battle for England are among the most bright examples of these. Groups of scientists analyzing data to provide grounds for the decisions to be made had significant contribution to these crucial campaigns. However, the analytics success was possible only in the context of technology development, organizational structure and leadership. The analytics is part of a much greater whole and is interconnected with all parts of it. The advanced analysis of Atlantic routes would mean much without the construction of an aircraft with longer range, the invention and implementation of the cavity magnetron, the improved dept charges, production of cargo and warships and the organization that putt all this together. Battle for Britain was won by the superb organization of the air defense,  the Spitfires,  the courage of these young men that flew them, the radar and the spirit of the people and their leader. No analytics could offset the lack of any of these elements.

Sometimes I get the feeling too much expectations are put on the analytics to reveal new information, create new insights and point to a perfect solution. Analytics does all that and quite successfully so but we should not forget it operates in a system that has many other components that influence its success. If the other components are not set properly and are not in tune, analytics cannot do much. For example, if the organizational focus is not set on the customer segment with highest potential then  the detailed knowledge of the selected segment would not matter much. The outcomes of an optimization of an organization would not matter much unless there are the people willing to take the responsibility to implement the changes.

Application of analytics is subject of personal and organizational culture, biases and internal politics.Without a strong support and drive, the findings do not worth much. The Lewis's Moneyball has a great example of using and applying analytics. A key factor in the story is Billy Bean had already realized that he needed to change the team management focus, the metrics that matter and the recruitment criteria. Also, he would have not succeeded if he did not have the drive to defend his approach and stick to it in difficult times.

No doubt, Nazi Germany had gifted and dedicated scientists on its side who were involved in similar analyses as the Blackett's group for example. Could they benefited from a powerful solution for faster and cheap analysis as MS Excel and how would that change the course of history? I don't think so. Analytics could not balance the bad strategic and policy choices made by Germany leaders or counterweight the lack of essential supplies such as petrol, manpower, ore and other the country needed. It would also counter balance the decisions based on personal biases and drawbacks that were so abundant on Germany side. Of course, Excel could have some impact on speed of some decisions and duration of some campaigns but nothing more than that.

These are nice stories and seemingly useless writing exercises but they relate to the daily life of the analyst or the manager. The analyst should recognize the context and the specific goals of the organization to employ the best method, apply proper criteria and make recommendations that fit these best. Throwing a gigabyte of data at her with a request to find a particular property is not the best application of analytics.Throwing into more or less theoretical reasoning could seem bit odd in our busy day and definitely would not help getting higher MAPE but I believe putting some perspective could have long-lasting benefits.


  1. I wonder if the fact that the allies basically invented what we know today as OR belies a different way of thinking between the Allies and the Axis and is related to other concerns to do with information. As history is popularly handed down, we're given the impression that the British were well ahead in terms of espionage and code breaking, while the Germans were ahead in the development of super-weapons, (with the notable exception of the A-bomb.) The Allies wanted to more effectively allocate resources by exploiting espionage and analysis, while the Axis put all their chips on having better resources to allocate.

    1. good point! yes, there seems to be different focus. I tried to find out if Germany had anything like OR during the war but I couldn't. In Engineers of Victory the author has the opinion that Allied intelligence role is overestimated.