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Applying Wisdom of Alexander the Great to Business Intelligence

The title at first glance might beg the question "What does Alexander have to do with Business Intelligence?", which is quite a natural reaction. But what is unnatural and invisible to many is the perspicacity that one can derive from the wisdom of Alexander to solve problems, not necessarily problems in BI implementation alone, but any problem for that matter.

The discussion here, though, shall be focused on the application of leadership process of Alexander to successful management of Business Intelligence implementations. Let us briefly have a look at Alexander's bio-data to first establish his credibility as a role model.

• Secured throne at age 20 on father’s assassination (336 B.C.)
• Unified Greece in less than two years
• Invaded and conquered Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia,the Middle East, the Persian Empire, Afghanistan,
Sogdiana, Bactria; and invaded India
• Fought four great battles—Granicus (334 B.C.), Issus (333 B.C.), Gaugamela (331 B.C.), Hydaspes (326 B.C.)—and
dozens of sieges, skirmishes, and minor engagements
• Successfully besieged the island of Tyre (332 B.C.)
• Defeated a navy on land
• Campaigned for ten consecutive years and covered 10,000 miles
• One of history’s wealthiest people
• Founded dozens of cities
• Knew the names of 10,000 soldiers
• Wounded uncounted times, three times nearly fatally

Lessons from the Persian invasion

Alexander had fought and won two of his four great battles— Granicus and Issus—and was almost ready to penetrate to the core of the Persian Empire. First, however, he had to secure his needed supplies. The food supply was his greatest challenge. Armies require enormous amounts of food, but in antiquity, commanders did not have the benefit of rapid-transit highways, helicopters, and large trucks to help them obtain it. Almost all food was transported by waterway. This meant that Alexander had to secure water routes from Greece to the coast and the rivers of Persia in order to be able to receive his supplies.

Darius III, the Achaemenid king whose dynasty had controlled Persia for more than a thousand years, commanded a formidable navy of about 200 veteran warships. In contrast, Alexander had only a small coastal fleet and food-carrying barges. The problem was obvious: How could Alexander protect his food supply when the Persian navy could so blithely intercept the coastal barges?

The equally obvious answer would be to respond in kind by building a fleet. However, Alexander could not build a fleet. He had neither the time nor the financial resources. His tenuous control of his army and homeland precluded the luxury of spending a year or two to locate resources and build a fleet.

He would have needed trees cut down and cut up, mines mined, ores smelted, fittings manufactured, sails sewn, ropes made, and so on. He would have needed to captain and man 200 warships, train their crews, and provoke the Persians to confront him in a pitched battle. Then, he would have had to win that battle against a fleet of seasoned commanders. This direct approach to solving the problem was not a reasonable option. But what else could he do?

(Stop. Think about your answer.)

The solution was so brilliant that it is studied today in every naval war college on the planet. Alexander was the first general to defeat a navy on land. Many have since tried to repeat this strategy. Some have succeeded, but he was the first.

How do you defeat a navy on land? Well, Alexander carefully gathered data until he completely understood his enemy—in this case, a fleet. This analysis revealed a key weakness: the need for fresh water. Today, we know nuclear submarines can go underwater and stay there for six months or more because reactor-driven desalination units distill salt water into fresh. In antiquity, though, distilleries could not create enough water to provision the crews. Plus, the fuel for a distillery was prohibitively heavy, and the fire hazard was enormous. As a result, naval commanders were constrained to carry their water with them, which put an upper bound on operating distances.

Generally, these rowed vessels could carry a couple of days’ supply of water for operating in the hot Mediterranean summer. A ship might either row out one day and back the next, or row out one day and continue on if the crew knew they could reach fresh water the next day. If Alexander’s army secured all sources of fresh water within about two rowing days of his food barges’ route, he could safeguard his supply.

While this may sound like a daunting task, Alexander managed it quite easily. His army garrisoned all sources of fresh water (e.g., rivers, wells, and lakes) or poisoned those sources they could not control or did not want to control. As the army marched down the coast of modern-day Lebanon, it came to the island city of Tyre. Tyre was critical to Alexander’s plans. This region of the world has aquifers, and one of them supplied Tyre with unlimited fresh water. Tyre sold this water to the Persian fleet. But Tyre was impregnable. The island had survived being besieged for thirteen years by the Persian fleet. That is truly impregnable. The Tyrians were impossibly smug in their certainty that they were safe. Had they not been, they would not have responded as they did.

Before Alexander could move on, he had to control the water supply on Tyre, or convince the Tyrians not to sell fresh water to the Persian fleet. His first attempt was to approach the city leaders diplomatically (ostensibly to offer a sacrifice to the gods). He was impolitely rebuffed (some say he was veritably thrown off the island). This rejection of diplomacy left Alexander no choice. He set about besieging the city by land.

He commanded his engineers and soldiers to build a mole over half a mile long (estimates range from five- to seven-tenths of a mile—call it a kilometer) and 100 to 200 yards wide. This causeway was simply a spit of land. Alexander’s men all took up shovels and baskets, used some of the walls of old Tyre, found loose earth near the coast, loaded the baskets, and like an army of ants dumped their loads into the ocean. Gradually, they filled in the gap of water between the mainland and the city.

This Alexander’s reduction of Tyre was critical to his plans to conquer the Persian Empire. The process took about seven months. The Tyrians, of course, tried to stop this engineering marvel. Their fleet tried to destroy the work, and it almost succeeded, but Alexander’s engineers built specialized towers and mobile battlements that protected the workers while they proceeded. He also borrowed small fleets to help guard the workers. When the causeway was complete, he was able to lay siege to the fortified island as though it were a city on land. It fell quickly—in about two weeks. The Persian fleet was rendered ineffective. Alexander marched triumphantly on to Egypt.

Reframing the problem

The war tactic described above is only meant to illustrate that by reframing a problem and looking at it from a different perspective, an ostensibly unsolvable problem could be either solved easily or the problem itself could be made redundant. Now let us see how we can apply this wisdom to the challenges in BI.

There are several challenges that are usually encountered in BI such as:
- Different needs and demands from the various functions in an organization
- Clinging onto functional data silos to assert authority and control, or in other words reluctance to relinquish control
- Lack of stakeholder buy-in and commitment
- Inertia to invest in a technology that cannot guarantee immediate tangible returns

Now let us use Alexander's approach to tackle one such challenge, namely, lack of stakeholder buy-in and commitment since this is believed to be the cause of most BI implementation failures.

First we need to carefully gather data until we completely understand the client. The data we typically need are:
- the kind of business they are in
- their competitive environment
- their go-to-market strategy - both long-term and short-term
- their organizational structure - the hierarchy of relationships
- their technology savviness - the state of current IT infrastructure and scope for leverage
- the priorities of various stakeholders in the organizations
- their current IT initiatives - for aligning them with the organizational and BI strategy
- their past achievements, if any - for understanding and replicating the success elements

These data shall serve as the initial building blocks for setting the strategic context for the envisaged BI implementation. Once this is in place, it is then imperative to understand the key strengths and weaknesses of the organization. This is required because in order to achieve a big success in future we need to have management support and buy-in; in order to get the stakeholder buy-in we need to register early successes; and in order to register these successes we need to be cognizant of the organization's strengths and especially the weaknesses that can be exploited.

Inevitably all organizations have some pressing concerns or the other at all times. For instance an organization might have implemented ERP but still may have problems in getting timely information on ,say, branch-wise profitability. Likewise organizations might have already implemented some IT systems for a specific purpose but might be facing certain glitches or hurdles in fully realizing the benefits. Look for such weaknesses and identify the stakeholder who has that pressing concern.

The next important task would be to build a business case to convert this stakeholder into an advocate for BI by presenting case studies of similar problems solved in the past and demonstrations of some prototypes implemented. The icing on the cake then would be to bring in a stakeholder from an existing client where this implementation was successfully done and present a convincing customer testimonial. This would build credibility in the mind of the prospective client for both the engagement and our consulting firm. It pays to remember here that client does not care how much you know unless they know how much you care.

This could be followed up with the promise of a small prototype exercise for the stakeholder and his division. The benefit of this prototype is that it consumes less effort, costs less for the client and demonstrates the benefit to the stakeholder and his team which could then be extrapolated for the organization. This paves the way for the management buy-in and sponsorship for the enterprise-wide BI implementation.

In line with Alexander's strategy, what we have essentially done is to reframe the problem of securing the management buy-in to a manageable problem of securing the buy-in of a stakeholder with a pressing issue to be addressed. This way we could devolve the responsibility of securing the management buy-in and sponsorship for the BI implementation to this stakeholder.

1. "Chapter 1, The Wisdom of Alexander the Great” by Lance B. Kurke, Ph.D

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Comment by DataLLigence on December 2, 2008 at 1:46am
beautiful, entertaining, and very informative!!!

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