Will I.T. make the boat go faster?

London 2012 already feels like an age away. But for me the memories are not so distant. In common with many who were touched by the events of that glorious sporting summer, I still search for key learnings that I might usefully deploy in both my personal and professional life.

To this end I have just finished reading a book called ‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?’ (Olympic Winning Strategies for Everyday Success)1. The principal author is Ben Hunt- Davis. Ben was part of the Olympic Gold medal winning rowing eight at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It charts the team’s journey from ‘failure’ in Atlanta 1996 (8th) to Gold in 2000. It is a riveting read on many different levels, but for me the most striking message is captured in the books title.


The team set themselves a ‘simple’ goal: an Olympic Gold medal in 2000. To achieve this goal the team and the support crew designed strategies and agreed a set of behaviours that would help them win the prize. In doing so – and for every day of their journey – they asked themselves one simple question: “Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?” This question was to guide all their actions and behaviours over the four year period.  If the answer to the question was yes, they did it. If the answer was no, they didn’t.  When you think about it, it is a beautifully simple construct.

The other central message of the journey was attention to detail. Every activity and behaviour was analysed forensically. No stone was left unturned. Importantly, strategy and behaviours were governed and guided by the available data.

The result: Gold medal glory; world class achievement.

Soon after finishing the book I happened across an article in Computer weekly titled ’How Data Analytics Swept Team GB Sailors To Gold’.

The article describes how the British sailing team – Skandia Team GBR – used business analytics software to help them sweep up five medals at the London 2012 Olympics. It talks of how the team used data analytics to measure factors affecting the team’s performance. Over a four year period data was gathered and information garnered not only about the teams own performance, but also those of its competitors. The resulting intelligence enabled the team and support crews to draw up a profile of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. Every piece of available data from boat class to weather conditions to race officials was broken down with the aim of giving the sailors a critical edge.

Out of the water and on to terra firma, we have the story of British Cycling. Thanks to Dave Brailsford – Performance Director, British Cycling – we are now familiar with the concept of the quest for ‘marginal gain’. The principle of marginal gain comes from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

And you just know that when Dave and the team weren’t ‘obsessing’ about the teams bed linen and hand washing habits, then they were pouring over the data and crunching the numbers in a bid to eke out every last piece of intelligence that might ‘make the bike go faster’. Their success has been underpinned by analytics and an obsession with the data. For Brailsford and the team there is a laser focus on the numbers to inform decision making.

The result: multiple gold medal successes on the track at successive Olympics – Beijing and London – plus Olympic Time Trial Gold at London. There is also the little matter of a Tour de France victory.

Bringing this closer to home I was much taken by a Briefing Paper from The Nuffield Trust that I came across in 2011. The paper ‘GP commissioning: insights from medical groups in the United States’2 looked at the experiences of doctors’ groups in the US who for many years now have held the equivalent of commissioning budgets.

One of the key messages of the paper was the importance placed on data and the intelligence and insights generated by that data. When drawing lessons to be learnt, the authors are at pains to emphasise the substantial investments made in data collection, IT systems and analysts. One Medical Group Chief Executive Officer is quoted as saying: “Information is key. You have to have the data. You have to be able to analyse the data. You will not be successful in this venture without understanding the data.”

For those of us who have been working in healthcare business intelligence for the past twenty years, all these stories resonate and yet from where I sit there is clearly much more work to be done.

Of course it is not the I.T. itself that will make the boat go faster. However, the intelligence driven from the data surely must provide insights that can help healthcare commissioners achieve their goals.

Back in July this year, the BBC website ran a piece on Dave Brailsford and British Cycling. The title of the article was ‘Team Sky think of everything. You name it, they’re already doing it.’3

Wonderful to think that sometime soon – with intelligence to the fore – we might make the same claim for Team Commissioning.

1 Authors: Ben Hunt-Davis & Harriet Beveridge

2 Authors: Ruth Thorlby, Rebecca Rosen and Judith Smith (The Nuffield Trust, January 2011)

3 Matt Slater