Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Improving self-improvement: a call for open-source education

It was simpler in the olden days: you bought the tool, read the documentation and voila! you'd taught yourself web analytics (well, almost). Now, to be at the top of your game in this business you need to be continuously learning. One of the many great reasons for working in the web analytics industry is its rate of development, with lots of new tools and techniques being introduced, and different thoughts abound on how to do the job properly.

There are a variety of learning resources available to the budding web analyst. There are many blogs in the web analytics field debating the latest issues, giving advice and suggesting new ways to tackle old problems (I've listed a few in my blog list to the right, if you're interested). There are also forums, books, and white papers provided by consultancies and vendors, catering to those in the visual learner category. For those auditory learners there are a number of podcasts out there (see also banner to the right). This then leaves the excitingly named kinesthetic learners who learn by doing, which sounds like the perfect opportunity to plug the Analysis Exchange.

So there are a number of places a web analyst can rely on to keep up-to-date with what's going on. But this puts me in mind of the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, talking about known unknowns. These resources are all great at helping you find out information about things you know that exist and you know little about, the known unknowns. But what about the unknown unknowns? How can you get a definitive list of everything that a web analyst should know, to determine if you're on top of it all? I believe that this is something that the WAA is missing. Whilst they currently have the syllabus for the WAA Certification, publishing a list of the areas involved in "Web Analytics" might help define the role of the web analyst better, and help them in their efforts to define themselves too. It could help build a coherent self-referenced set of pages on the intracies of web analytics, with suggestions for the metrics and reports to use for given scenarios. Whilst there's plenty of information out there providing overviews of web analytics and the tools to use, quite often the advice contained glosses over the details, or is one-dimensional, failing to mention other related reports or analyses that could be carried out. This then would become the definitive site for a web analytics education.

The science of web analytics has been around for a while now. So why hasn't this "open-source" educational resource been created yet? Being spoon-fed the information isn't the best way to learn - what good, curious web analyst would want to learn this way? With the current web analytics sphere being very tools-centric it becomes harder to share information as silos develop. And there's also an element of self-interest. Handing out the information on a plate loses business for practioners; it also spoils book sales.

And yet, I still feel that open-source education is the way to move forwards. Whilst the web analytics industry has been around for a while, it's still not mature. The public doesn't trust it, and whilst the majority of companies have at least one web analytics solution on their site, there's little evidence it's being used to its potential, with only the largest or bravest allowing their online strategy to be steered by it. In order to deal with this, we need to grow the number of individuals with the necessary knowledge to become advocates, dedicated to analysing their website on a full time basis. Restricting the ease with which they can learn is a short-termist approach - we need to think about the long term. By growing an army of trained web analysts, the case for the benefits of analytics can be made to those businesses still too small or immature to have made the transition, transforming companies from being satisfied with a list of their top 10 pages to ones competing on analytics, to paraphrase Stephane Hamel's OAMM model. As a critical mass of sites that truly use analytics is reached, the remainder will have to engage or die. Competition breeds improvements in techniques and ideas. Then, as the world learns that sophisticated web analytics requires sufficient resourcing, the opportunity for consulting services and more specialist knowledge will grow, and the availability of information on the internet becomes irrelevant. No-one teaches themselves accountancy - they hire an accountant. By sharing now, we can create the demand for tomorrow.


  1. How about a web analytics wiki? I know everyone always has the solution of a wiki and that if they are left unmoderated they end up as spammy adverts, but if the WAA is raking in all this money from subscriptions, they could surely fund it.

    That way you could have a page for each person, each blog, each forum, each tool, each term (with definitions within for how it works in each tool), etc. Plus being a wiki you would have a load of people (you and me included, I'm sure) willing to upload content - especially if they end up with a page for themselves.

    Maybe I'm thinking too small and an online marketing wiki would be better. Or maybe I'm thinking too large and this would become unmanagable and spammy fast, especially given the large number of consultants in the industry.


  2. Thanks for the post, Alec; great idea!

    I was thinking along similar lines. Something that's open to all, that isn't set in stone, with appropriate sections for different tools etc. To my mind, this is something that would provide a real benefit to the WAA, giving more credence to the idea of them being the "home" of web analytics. I'd love to see them take this up.

  3. Amen! :)

    Creating a wiki (outside the WAA) as been tried several times and it never worked. The WAA site technology includes wiki functionality but it's not really good... we are looking into integrating a real Wiki platform. However, as in so many things "open source", lots of people are eager to "watch and get", it ends up few are really involved and willing to "give". The issue of leadership, management and administration is also real - it takes a hell of a lot of time to do a good job (for free?).

    Let me give another example: what if the Online Analytics Maturity Model I worked on became open source? (thanks for the link!) I think it could be a good start (of course, I'm biased) but as an independent consultant who spent countless hours on it, how would I protect my intellectual property and make a living? It's the result of 20+ years of work experience, 15+ related to web and data management - should I make my brain freely available? Beyond pride and glamor, I still have bills to pay (*grin*)! Selfish, yes, maybe :)

    It's a difficult choice. As someone closely involved with the WAA (Board of Directors) and in the academic field (UBC & ULaval), I wish there was a really easy solution to this challenge. Since I'm a strong believer of making things easier instead of crying it's hard, something is boiling for the fall...

  4. Great post Lawrence - lots of food for thought.

    I agree it sounds great and it would be nice to see open-source educational wiki-type resources, but one problem I can think of is that in an encyclopaedic wiki, you should be dealing with facts. With web analytics, there's a lot of interpretation, individual flourishes, complete divergences of opinion and so on. And of course, as Stéphane points out, there is intellectual property to consider.

    It's one of those questions that could go around and around in circles - but I'd still love to see someone take a stab at it. Thanks for getting the conversation going!

  5. Stéphane - Thanks for your comment! I agree, it's all to easy for the likes of me to stand on the sidelines and demand x,y and z. However, I really think that this is an really good opportunity for the WAA to grab, and take ownership of education in this field. But instigated correctly (and I make no claims to be an expert - I wrote this post merely to provoke some ideas) I would hope it could encourage users to contribute and demonstrate their abilities, perhaps using some user scoring mechanism. Regarding the self-interest, I agree that you would be a prime contender to lose out, but I suppose it's about the extra value you could provide with that experience. I'd hope that putting this information out there would grow the market and thus demand, rather than shrink it. But, it's still not an easy choice to make.

    Emer - Thanks for your thoughts. I beg to differ though. Whilst a wiki should deal with facts, I don't see why it couldn't cater for differing opinions or interpretations, as long as these were clearly labelled as such. Just as more traditional academic fields have their disagreements, I don't see why these differing view points couldn't be given their own space in the wiki, with their differing solutions. It might even help people their own minds up, as they see how these different methods aggregate up to schools of thought.


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