John Ward: 'Sport can teach business some important lessons in vital field of data analysis'

What can business learn from sport? Traditionally, many things come to mind like teamwork, collaboration, commitment, practice, shared values – all are key to optimising results.

However, business can learn other things from sport, particularly elite sport in the application and usage of data to influence approaches, actions and results.

Evidence of this will be seen this weekend, when Dublin and Kerry do battle in this year’s All Ireland football final replay. Each player will line out with a small GPS pod tucked neatly in the back of their jersey, designed to capture every measurable characteristic of their movements. This information alone is not enough, but how Jim Gavin and Peter Keane interpret the data may prove crucial in deciding who emerges the victor.

The use of data analysis in sport was immortalised in Michael Lewis’s bestselling book ‘Moneyball’ about how the Oakland As selected players based on data and stats, rather than emotion and observation.

The ‘moneyball’ method has made its way into many sports, and has driven a new industry within an industry.

Today, sports teams have advanced analytics teams. Game and player data is analysed over and over again, day in, day out, to tweak strategies, and maximise the potential of their teams, both individually and collectively, to determine what’s working and what’s not, and to find the most efficient way to beat the competition. Within sports, data has the potential to turn an average team into a competitive one by maximising their efficiency, through careful, continual analysis.

It was once the case that sporting events were solely based on gut feel and intuition.

Today, while these ingredients are still critical, decisions, plans and tactics are decided away from the playing field. This is often done by people who have not played the game. Rather they see it as a resource-optimisation challenge based on data. Experienced coaches often are blind to this.

Why? Because their experience brings bias. As Henri-Louis Bergson said once: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

The use of data is driving change in how sport is played, and modern progressive coaches are using it to drive their tactical approach such as Jurgen Klopp’s ‘gegenpress’ method, which is premised on running and pressing more than the opposition.

In fact, Klopp’s appointment at Liverpool was in part based on data. Ian Graham, who heads Liverpool’s data team, had analysed the performance of Borussia Dortmund (his previous team) and concluded they had underachieved in the latter years of his stewardship.

Looking at sports as a petri dish for data analysis, what lessons can businesses learn to capitalise on the potential of data to transform how they operate? How can businesses operate with the same level of scrutiny over how the organisation is operating so that we transform our businesses and industries?

1. Don’t just collect data. Use the data you have every single day, on every single project. If you want to continue learning and improving, analyse your projects regularly and tweak your approach as you go.

2. Accept that you are biased, and use data to challenge these biases. Every one of us has unconscious biases that manifest themselves throughout our lives. Data allows you to make fact-based decisions, free of the internal and external influences that could be hampering results.

3. Integrate analytics across the entire organisation in every single function. On the field, every player is familiar with their stats and what these mean. They use the analysis to work on their individual development, and to figure out optimum team structure and approaches. Imagine if every single one of your teams operated in the same way.

4. Don’t assume that technology alone will deliver an outcome. You need people with different perspectives and experiences to make sense of what the data is telling you. A team of players running around a field wearing devices would mean little if there weren’t experts on the sidelines with a full understanding of how the technology operated and what story the data told. Investing in technology without people who know how to use it optimally in business is the exact same.

5. Interpret data and communicate it to the entire team in a way they can understand. In a recent EY client event we were privileged to have Alan Brogan and Tomás Ó Sé talk about their intercounty careers. Brogan told an interesting anecdote that when Pat Gilroy took over as Dublin manager, he told them that the key statistic was tackles.

As someone in the forward line, he normally focused on scores/chances created, but over time he came to realise that tackle count was simple to get the team to align on, and when they hit their tackle count for matches they were more successful overall.

Your team should understand every single point you make in your analysis. Data can create stories.

Learn how to tell those stories in language people understand.

John Ward is head of emerging technology at EY Ireland.

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