What are we doing when we analyse?

Paul Rees (9 January, 2020) (link) in an article in The Guardian asked Is rugby union losing its way by becoming a numbers game?. In it he cites work undertaken by Andrew Manley and Shaun Williams (link).

Andrew and Shaun’s paper is titled ‘We’re not run on Numbers, We’re People, We’re Emotional People’: Exploring the experiences and lived consequences of emerging technologies, organizational surveillance and control among elite professionals. Their paper appeared in the journal Organization (link).

The abstract of the paper is:

The deployment of digital technologies and data analytics within contemporary organizations are continually seeking to capture vast reams of information to shape employee performance and guide behaviour. However, there is a need to further advance our understanding of the effects and unintended consequences of these technologies within differing organizational contexts. Drawing on the experiences of members connected to a UK-based professional Rugby Union club, we focus on the impact of emerging technologies and ubiquitous surveillance practices in governing employee behaviour, shifting workplace boundaries and providing the ability to resist a mode of organizational control governed by data analytics. Specific emphasis is placed upon exposing the lived consequences and tensions that emerge among employees subjected to an intensive mode of organizational surveillance. In doing so, this study highlights the manner in which emerging technologies and surveillance practices may contribute towards feelings of anxiety, precariousness and performance fatigue among their employees. Through this analysis, we aim to provide a critical understanding of managerial and leadership techniques of control, surveillance and knowledge production that may prove relevant for future research in wider organizational settings shaped by technological transformations and new forms of data-driven management. (My emphases.)

I take strongly the argument proposed by Andrew and Shaun with regard to lived experience, ubiquitous surveillance and the role of data analytics. They raise important questions about our practice as analysts and how we might deal with the volumes of data now available to us in training and competition contexts.

After all my years in analysis, I now how two basic principles to guide me:

  • Less is more
  • Decisions about sharing (what is so important we have to share it?)

I think these principles help me support the arguments in Paul’s article about freedom and intuition. They are a way of addressing the ‘soft’ skills we require as analysts. Rebecca Vickery (2019) (link) noted of these skills “if you really want to succeed as a data scientist you will need to also ensure that you have the right set of soft skills too”. She points out “these skills are not taught, nor are they listed, on most data science courses”. She suggests that there are five skills to be developed: skepticism; perseverance; creativity; business acumen; and communication. Rebecca observes “It doesn’t matter how good your technical skills are, if you can’t communicate with others well, then you will find it very difficult to deliver anything of true value”.

I do think all these ‘soft’ skills are very important for the practice of analytics. I take communication to be the key to how we support coaches and players and a new form of practice that empowers the front office of performance. As such we aim to be transformative in what we do rather than be trapped by the transactional processes related to ubiquitous surveillance.


Jason Lear found this post and alerted me to a tweet of 5 January 2020 (link). In it he quoted John Maeda “although data can make a compelling case for something, data rarely create the emotions needed to spur people into action”.

In 2018, Anant Agarwal (link) wrote in the Forbes magazine that Data Reveals Why The ‘Soft’ In ‘Soft Skills’ Is A Major Misnomer. Anant noted that in 2017, Google reported “their highest performing teams were interdisciplinary groups that benefited heavily from employees who brought strong soft skills to the collaborative process”. He argued “many believe that the term ‘soft skills’ is a misnomer. Critical thinking, persuasive writing, communications, and teamwork are not fluffy, nice-to-have value-adds. They’re hard-won and rigorously maintained abilities that are better referred to as ‘power skills’.

Anant links to a 2017 article written by Dylan Walsh (link). Dylan proposes that soft skills can be taught.

Philip Hanlon is credited with creating the term ‘power skills’. In an interview with Anant Agarwal (2016) (link), Philip observed “power indicates something much more important and meaningful. It creates a sense of necessity—soft skills sound like a mushy nice to haves, but power skills sound like a must have”.

Philip’s argument raises some important issues for our pedagogy. Whether we call the skills ‘soft’ or ‘power’ invites us to think about the must have skills as analysts and how we develop these in our pedagogy.

Photo Credit

Photo by Samara Doole on Unsplash.


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