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Unpredictable Analytics

There is data, there is research and there is information, but events are still unpredictable.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

Business intelligence, predictive analytics, leadership, management . . . these are the topics that occupy my mind and time on a daily basis. Today, though, what is on my mind has more to do with intelligent business, leadership, lack of effective analytics and unpredictability.

One of my colleagues, Donna, is a wonderful leader, entrepreneur and mentor. After an extensive career with such companies as Quark, Customer Insight/Experian, Lotus and Philips Information Systems, 10 years ago she started a business with her husband. She has facilitated training for Microsoft, Qwest, Sybase, Micromedex, JD Edwards, HIS and many other companies. Her long list of successes and credentials fills many pages. I have hired her multiple times to provide consulting and training for my business. Even my competitors know she is the best, and they hire her too!

She built an intelligent business that is very successful in our community, and her leadership has impacted numerous people in the technology industry. Then, a very unpredictable thing happened. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) last fall. With her typical drive and positive attitude, she adapted her business to leverage web seminars so that she could still serve her clients. She researched the disease with the same intensity that she taught others to research their clients. She leveraged her network to get beyond the waiting list for educational sessions about the disease. She continued to consult over the phone and to support her clients, including me.

Then, the most unpredictable thing of all happened. Donna was diagnosed not only with MS, but also with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The combination of ALS and MS is extremely rare, and there are no treatments available to slow the progression. There is no cure. Within a matter of months, my consultant friend has lost the use of her hands. She cannot walk and is confined to a wheelchair and bed. She is losing the use of her voice and ability to swallow. Time is short.
These events have caused me to reflect on business, leadership and unpredictability. Donna is a successful leader with a great business, a clear strategy, an entrepreneurial spirit and a close business partner. I reflect on how quickly things can change within months and how little control we actually have on analyzing and predicting events.

I sent Donna a book that I had read several years ago that explores people with terminal illness and healing, noting that healing is not always physical. She started to read it, and I decided to read it again in my odd attempt to be “in sync” with her. There was a section in the book that highlighted the ability of dying patients to teach us about life. That hit me more profoundly than any article or book I’ve ever read about business intelligence, technology, predictive analytics or architecture. Here is this vivacious person who has architected an intelligent business in the technology industry, coping with a life situation that is beyond unpredictable.

Her friends have created a schedule for her colleagues, friends and customers to visit her daily, 12:30 to 2:00 pm. She refers to it as her “living memorial.” It certainly puts things in perspective for me . . . the importance of the impending project deadline, the petty political manipulations of a particular project manager, or the urgency of getting the data model just right. Her business of teaching others about important things continues. I created a little plaque for her on which I tried to simulate what the proverbial new business “shingle” might look like. It reads: Donna L. Cohen, Lessons in Living, 12:30 to 2:00 pm daily.

All of this occurred in a matter of months and changed her life, her business, her customer interaction and her financial situation. There is data, there is research and there is information, but events are still unpredictable. It makes me wonder why we can analyze data and predict the next item in an online shopping cart, but cannot find the connection between data and terminal disease.

Donna wrote a book called Go Big...or Stay Home that is a reflection of her outrageous personality, and her incredible wisdom. It is a well-worn, much-highlighted book on my shelf. There are things that Donna teaches in this book about success that apply to business intelligence (BI) initiatives. She suggests that to demonstrate trust and win credibility, you should make sure the following qualities are in play at all times:


Be up front about what you can and cannot do. There is a tendency in BI initiatives to over-commit and under-deliver because we want to please the customer. Ultimately, you’ll be better off if you are honest and provide the truth about what is possible. Once you do that, the rest is the customer’s choice; it’s their decision about how to move forward. What if they decide not to move forward? “No” may not be what you want to hear, but at least you will be respected and known for being honest. Ultimately, it will save time and disappointment if you are up front with yourself and others.


Although I find the field of predictive analytics in business intelligence interesting, at this moment in time, it is not as compelling as interacting with Donna in her final days. Her spirits are upbeat, and her sense of humor balances her tears. The last time I saw her she commented that she was “living the trifecta.” Puzzled, I asked, “What do you mean by that?” She replied “I’m living the trifecta: I’ve got MS, ALS and menopause . . . I am so unique!” Indeed! I had to laugh . . . amazed at her sense of humor. The lesson: laugh at yourself. It helps to neutralize tension and alleviate uncomfortable situations. When I begin to take myself too seriously with the demands of business and the BI world, I think about Donna “living the trifecta” and maintaining her sense of humor in the context of a terminal illness.


Take responsibility for your mistakes. Be willing to admit when you don’t know something. It’s not about being right; rather, it’s about creating trust and building credible relationships. The BI field is full of very talented, smart people. Many of those people have healthy egos that seem to preclude an ability to ask for help or leverage the collective wisdom of the team. In our culture of “rugged individualism,” the need to truly rely on others is difficult to do. Again, Donna has been an inspiration in humility in her ability to acknowledge her situation and ask others for help.

Donna’s husband and business partner is providing the full-time care that she requires. Because they were in business together and for themselves, their financial situation has completely deteriorated in a matter of months. Business leaders and friends have generously responded with support and are conducting an emergency fund-raising campaign. If you would like more information about how to support this campaign, e-mail me at, and I’ll point you in the right direction. If you want to find out more about ALS and/or MS, check out and If you are involved in clinical data warehouse initiatives related to these diseases, I’d love to hear from you.

As for me, this week I’m working on keeping things in perspective and recognizing how unpredictable life really is.

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