History Can Help Navigate Your Business – If You Have the Data


Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough once called history, “a guide to navigation in perilous times.” Many lesser men have said, somewhat less famously: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Therein lies the key to understanding the value in organized, transparent data, whether your business is supply chain management, e-procurement or warehouse management: Everything you need to know is out there, just waiting to be interpreted.

Two recently published articles brought to mind the very important role past events can play in determining future success – if only we had a reliable and organized system for examining historical facts.

Using Science to Make Successful Films

One was the New York Times piece on Hollywood’s efforts to apply science to the art of screenwriting. Vinny Bruzzese’s Worldwide Motion Picture Group charges up to $20,000 per script to scrutinize the story structure and genre of a draft script before locations are scouted or a single frame is shot. Analysts use an extensive database of focus group results for similar films, and they survey 1,500 potential moviegoers.

Some things they know, based on data: Movie flops tend to contain bowling scenes, and guardian superheroes (Superman) go over better than cursed superheroes (Batman). The company turns around a 20- to 30-page report that helps tailor the movie, statistically, for success.

The writers, of course, hate this idea as an intrusion on the creative process. But movie execs and financiers have endorsed it, commissioning about 100 script reviews, including one for the recently released “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Producer Scott Steindorff told the Times that the approach “takes a lot of the risk out of what I do. … Everyone is going to be doing this soon.”

Studying the Past for Clues About the Future

The second piece, which appeared this week on Wired.com, is about mathematicians and scientists who scour history for patterns they can use to predict the future. The field is called “cliodynamics,” after the Greek muse of history, Clio, and it is led by University of Connecticut professor Peter Turchin.

As Wired notes, the idea is not new. Philosophers and historians have long used statistical techniques to predict the future. What’s different now is the ready availability of voluminous data – digitized newspapers, historical accounts, public records – that make mathematical modeling more accurate. The information existed previously; it simply wasn’t accessible.

Most traditional historians – not unlike the Hollywood writers – are wary, but one Yale professor was quoted as saying his field should take notice of how Turchin is applying data.

Applications for Business

The implications for business are obvious. The data – the history of transactions, product movement, procurements, inventory levels, supply and demand – are just sitting there waiting to help you make better decisions. Chances are, though, the data is locked in mainframe databases that you can’t easily access or scattered across several databases that don’t talk to one another. Or, worse yet, you still keep records on paper.

Smart organizations know that the key to their futures is in linking all that information together and making it transparent and user-friendly so it can be interpreted and applied in anticipation of the next spike in demand or supply chain interruption.

Enterprise applications exist now that can help you be smarter in every facet of your operation. They allow you to capture all the data about how and where company money is being spent on air travel, hotels, office supplies, etc. That information can be used to negotiate lower prices and bulk discounts.

Similarly, integrated procurement and inventory/warehouse management applications can help you know in real time which products need to be replenished and when. You can even put mobile technology to use and optimize routes for a fleet of service vehicles, based on past delivery times.

The possibilities are virtually endless. However, if you haven’t corralled the data in a useful way, your organization is doomed to prove correct the anonymous man who said this: “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”