Thursday, May 25, 2006

Know your numbers

Eleven years ago I worked for a guy who worked for a guy who worked for a guy who was a main board director at Citibank. Jim Bailey was head of Global Transactions - Cash, Trade Finance and Securities - that business would have been generating billions of dollars in revenue annually. I was running operations in Citibank Austria - a small country in the scheme of Citibank's overall footprint. Jim was a fiend for numbers. One day when he visited for an update on how things were going in Austria, I was prepped and ready to deal with any questions. I'd had it drilled into me by my boss - "know your numbers", "know your numbers". Jim stayed true to form and asked intricate questions about every piece of data I put in front of him. He wanted to understand the detail behind the figures and sometimes really arcane stuff about securities settlements and cash management volumes. That day, I really got how important numbers are in some organisations. I think they should be important in every organisation. Being able to talk numbers, provided they're grounded and you understand how they came about, is a fundamental skill. I had it drilled into me at Citi - because the guys at the top wanted to know that you knew your numbers. Not being able to back up your argument with data meant you were just giving your opinion. Opinions are like a**holes; we all have them but we don't (and shouldn't) get them out and show people all the time. Spraying numbers around with abandon or, worse, using compromised numbers means I lose faith in who you are and what you stand for - if I can even figure out what you stand for. John Reid, the Secretary of State for the Home Office, is going through thw pain of not having reliable data now - he doesn't know the numbers, because his people can't provide him accurate ones. One of his people, Dave Roberts, didn't have "the faintest idea" about any numbers to do with immigration. I'm pretty baffled why no one seems to have asked "We understand why you don't know how many there are since the dawn of time, do you know how many have come and gone since, say, January 1st 1998? Or 1999?" - surely that would be a sensible question to ask? Dr Reid did have this to say though: Asked about the cabinet secretary's suggestion last week that no civil servants were likely to lose their job over the foreign prisoner releases, he said: "Don't count on it." Numbers do have some importance then - I'll be watching his "count" with interest. Government still seems not to know how many websites it operates which is pretty odd given that there is only one way to register a domain name. Domains aren't the same as sites, I know, but it's a pretty good proxy (and it's not hard to strip out obvious duplicates, e.g. and And, after all, the government does run the Office of National Statistics - maybe we should ask them? Still, I digress, this wasn't meant to be about government websites, it was about needing to know your numbers, needing to argue from a factual baseline that you align with the other parties - to make sure that your definition of a "call" or a "job" or a "hit" is the same as everyone else's. I'm stunned when folks on my own team or, worse, vendors still come to me without data and expect to have an anecdotal conversation. As Number 10 is fond of saying, "The plural of anecdote is not data."


  1. Anonymous11:26 pm

    Take the point that banks want to know the cash they have hanging around.

    However, comparisons can be odious, so I am not sure if something as complex as the Criminal Justice system can be solved by quoting accurately from a balanced scorecard or interger counting.

    Bankers might get a stiffy over the numbers, but put them into the Home Office and lets see how long they last trying trying to sort it out

  2. Guess it depends what you mean by complex. Shifting $60 billion into the UK clearing system every morning and making sure it gets to all the right people is pretty complex. Handling customer records on I don't know how many hundred million credit card or current account holders in over 100 countries is also complex. Surely we can cope with 80,000 (at peak) prisoners and where they are at any one time? Turns out we can't - prisoners often leave one prison in the morning to attend a court date, only to return to a different one in the evening because the records are screwed up. Agree it's complex - but that doesn't mean the issues can't be addressed. 43 separate police forces all using separate systems? Prison and probation tracking offenders using separate systems?