Mooers’ Law and the Challenge of BI

By: Tim Vlamis
July 29, 2008
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An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it. —Calvin Mooers 1959

When one cites Mooers’ Law at most IT conferences, most people immediately think of the law that addresses how the number of processors which fits on a computer chip advances given a discrete unit of time. The law of Calvin Mooers, however, predates the processor chip law by a few years. Calvin Mooers was a rare individual, one who relished a good dilemma more than a scientific truth. What should be most interesting for us in Business Intelligence, however, is the implication of the ever increasing information processing speed, power, and accessibility of business information; executives may find having more information more troublesome than not having it.

For those who want to focus on making BI tools and software more “user friendly” as the ultimate answer to every obstacle facing BI and believe accessibility is what Mooers’ first law is addressing, they need to face a broader, more sober reality. Mooers extended his thoughts in what might be termed a first “corollary” to his law.


Where an information retrieval system tends not to be used, a more capable information retrieval system may tend to be used even less.

Executives may have certain perspectives, beliefs, and strategies that they don’t want challenged by information. They may choose to ignore our precious BI tools rather than rely on them. The more user friendly and accessible we make them, the more threatening they become. The famous social observer Saki stated:


A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.
H. H. Munro ‘Saki’ (1870-1916).

Sometimes we need to recall that businesses don’t run on information alone and that decisions are not pure calculation. Businesses are living, breathing, entities that have all the complexity and motivational obsequiousness that we have as individual people. To truly understand how best to leverage the power of BI tools, we need to reflect on an organization in an empathetic way. What are their underlying motivations? How does their situation “make sense”? How sustainable is their current culture that prefers ignoring analytical information? And who, if anyone, is trying to change the culture? Sometimes, it seems, executives prefer a little inaccuracy in order to save a ton of explanation.


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