Analytics: Lessons Learned from Winston Churchill


I had the pleasure to be invited for lunch by Prof. Baessens earlier this week and we talked about a next meetup subject that could be ‘War and Analytics’. As you might know Bart  is a WWI fanatic and he has already written a nice article on the subject called ‘Analytics: Lessons Learned from Winston Churchill’

here is the article—

Nicolas Glady’s Activities

Activities Overview‎ > ‎Online articles‎ > ‎ Analytics: Lessons Learned from Winston Churchill

Analytics has been around for quite some time now.  Even during World War II, it proved critical for the Allied victory. Some famous examples of allied analytical activities include the decoding of the enigma code, which effectively removed the danger of submarine warfare, and the 3D reconstruction of 2D images shot by gunless Spitfires, which helped Intelligence at RAF Medmenham eliminate the danger of the V1 and V2 and support operation Overlord. Many of the analytical lessons learned at that time are now more relevant than ever, in particular those provided by one of the great victors of WWII, then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

The phrase “I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself” is often attributed to him. However, while its wit is certainly typical of the Greatest Briton, it was probably a Nazi Propaganda invention. Even so, can Churchill still teach us something about statistical analyses and Analytics?


A good analytical model should satisfy several requirements depending upon the application area and follow a certain process. The CRISP-DM, a leading methodology to conduct data-driven analysis, proposes a structured approach: understand the business, understand the data, prepare the data, design a model, evaluate it, and deploy the solution. The wisdom of the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature can help us better understand this process.

Have an actionable approach: aim at solving a real business issue

Any analytics project should start with a business problem, and then provide a solution. Indeed, Analytics is not a purely technical, statistical or computational exercise, since any analytical model needs to be actionable. For example, a model can allow us to predict future problems like credit card fraud or customer churn rate. Because managers are decision-makers, as are politicians, they need “the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year… And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.” In other words, even when the model fails to predict what really happened, its ability to explain the process in an intelligible way is still crucial.

In order to be relevant for businesses, the parties concerned need first to define and qualify a problem before analysis can effectively find a solution. For example, trying to predict what will happen in 10 years or more makes little sense from a practical, day-to-day business perspective: “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.”  Understandably, many analytical models in use in the industry have prediction horizons spanning no further than 2-3 years.

Understand the data you have at your disposal

There is a fairly large gap between data and comprehension. Churchill went so far as to argue that “true genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.”  Indeed, Big Data is complex and is not a quick-fix solution for most business problems. In fact, it takes time to work through and the big picture might even seem less clear at first. It is the role of the Business Analytics expert to really understand the data and know what sources and variables to select.

Prepare the data

Once a complete overview of the available data has been drafted, the analyst will start preparing the tables for modelling by consolidating different sources, selecting the relevant variables and cleaning the data sets. This is usually a very time-consuming and tedious task, but needs to be done: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Never forget to consider as much past historical information as you can. Typically, when trying to predict future events, using past transactional data is very relevant as most of the predictive power comes from this type of information. “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”

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