Analysing the future: A Conversation with James Woudhuysen

At our second Conversations event in London, James Woudhuysen talked to our guests from the charities sector about how successful forecasting depends on the way that data is collected, analysed, presented and challenged. 

We also received an exclusive interview with James afterwards. Videos of which can be viewed here.

By James Brennan, Head of Business Development, Charities

An expert in forecasting and innovation, James has a deep love of data. His forecasts come from his immensely skilful analysis of numbers: he understands how best to collect and interpret data, and how then to visualise their outputs to predict the future.

This might be rather indulgent if James didn’t have real-world credentials. But you can’t dismiss the predictions of a man who, even before graduating, helped to install Britain’s first computer-controlled car park in 1968; who was running client studies into e-commerce in 1988, a whole decade before Amazon led the dotcom boom; and proposed Web TV as early as 1993. 

James delivered his insights at a pace, supported by fast-moving slides. In a testament to the short attention span of the digital age, he rattled through photographs, charts and theories covering a huge range of issues. The spine of James’s presentation was, however, how data is essential to forecasting and he explained that organisations have three broad kinds of data.

Firstly, data on their own operations. The management theory that ‘if you can measure it, you can manage it’ is only true in the double negative. James argues that organisations should do more than live by KPIs and targets. As well as acquiring data, they should ‘visualise’ it to improve their insight and make better, quicker decisions – this requires data that are consistent and not distorted.

Secondly, data on customer goals. James warned that data mainly captures attitudes, behaviour and circumstances, not underlying goals, which are much harder to appreciate. He advised that in a lower-growth environment, organisations should focus on productivity – one of the key sources of innovation is the insight and experience of employees, particularly in the consumer or charitable sectors.

Finally, these data must be understood in context. Huge amounts of data are in the public domain, but are only useful when understood in the context of competitors’ actions, external events and threats, such as cybercrime. Running experiments and prototypes turns raw data and uncertainty into quantifiable risk. James urges organisations to do more, wider, deeper and better-funded R&D. A critical line is the best way to review data (‘collect and suspect’) – too often data are published to support governmental or corporate policy, or causal relationships are falsely identified.

Following questions and answers, our guests talked further with James or caught up with their friends and peers in the charities sector. As ever, we are very grateful for their time and enthusiastic participation. We hope you will join us at a future Conversations event in 2016.

You can view the interview videos of James advising on how charities can collect and improve their understanding of data as well as store it securely.

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