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August 14, 2018
So much more than Moneyball
By: Nikita Atkins

Lessons Australian businesses can learn from Rugby Australia’s approach to data analytics

In the movie Moneyball, Brad Pitt turns baseball on its ear by using computer-generated analysis to pick low-cost but high-skill players for underdog, Oakland Athletics. Based on real events in 2001, the movie charts the first direct challenge to the ‘gut instinct’ of scouts and coaches – who responded with a predictable mix of scorn and disbelief. Even when Oakland outperformed against all expectations, the naysayers weren’t convinced. But when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series using the same model, sports coaches the world over sat up and took notice.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Australian sports codes are leading the world in our use of data science and advanced analytics – going far beyond using performance statistics to pick players. Having pushed the boundaries in the way they make use of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to get the most out of their athletes, our sports organisations have important lessons for how corporate Australia measures and supports its workforce.

How to make your data a workplace game changer

Rugby Australia has taken advanced analytics and run with it, using principles that will benefit any organisation – sports or corporate – wanting to hone its competitive edge.

  • Use a centralised platform – 18 months ago, Rugby Australia hit the wall in statistical analysis. Organisational data was extremely decentralised, with six different IT systems and range of spreadsheets. It took hours to manually create reports after each game. Working with Accenture, Rugby Australia went live last year with a centralised High Performance Analytics Platform. Data pours in from individual players and teams at all levels – Wallabies, Wallaroos, Super Rugby, Super W, men and women’s Sevens, Club Rugby, Junior Wallabies – with dashboards quickly updated after a match. Connecting disparate data silos into a universal data model allows coaches to get a 360 degree view of players, teams and competitors. This has helped coaches gain strategic insights into what teams need to do on the field to win and how to translate training into on field performance.

    TIP: You won’t get real value from AI and analytics until all your organisational, customer and third party data is centralised and standardised on a platform.

  • Live or die by data quality – centralising data is not enough to gain insights. While many organisations will perform one-off data cleansing, Rugby Australia has implemented tools and processes to constantly govern and manage the quality of the data. This includes identification of data stewards, master data management, automated data cleansing tools and business rules engines.

    TIP: “Garbage-In, Garbage-Out.” The value of your insights is only as powerful as the quality and the value of your data assets.

  • Capture diverse performance data at all levels – Rugby Australia constantly adds to the data is measures to benchmark performance and support talent development. As well as tracking on field performance, every player is now fitted with a GPS unit that measures their heartrate, acceleration and deceleration. Coaches use multiple metrics to identify those ready to transition to the next level.

    TIP: Augment traditional KPIs with other measures of an employee’s readiness for promotion to the next level of Rugby – in-game decision making and player cohesion.

  • Democratise data across your organisation – Rugby Australia has opened its platform to help rugby players at all levels get the most out of their careers. Players now get access to the same numbers the coaches see, supporting their own preparation. Our next phase of work will see the platform giving players feedback to identify what areas to concentrate on in their training.

    TIP: Give employees access to managerial dashboards, including their own performance data. Their success supports their manager’s success, which supports corporate success.

  • Predict and prevent catastrophic failure – For years, injured athletes have tried to ‘walk off’ serious injuries only for the joint or muscle to fail catastrophically on the field – often with terrible long-term results. Now, Accenture is building injury prediction models that tell coaches and players when an injury can’t be ‘walked off’, and what interventions will lead to the best chance of fast recovery.

    TIP: Use similar models to improve wellbeing and productivity. For example, by measuring health data (heart rate, blood pressure) we can alert people before stress leads to chronic illness. The model could also identify the best preventative measures – from an hour’s break to a week’s leave – to stop key personnel from burning out. Equally, the mining, transport and aviation industries already use eye-tracking technology that senses if a driver is distracted or falling asleep at the wheel. We can use this type of technology to monitor when people are at their most productive and model the optimal working conditions (time of day, type of work environment) for different tasks.

  • Exploiting videos to their full potential – One of the biggest data-driven challenges facing team sports is that most of the data is “on-the-ball”, with little information about what players are doing once they have passed or kicked the ball. Accenture is working with Rugby Australia to develop Artificial Intelligence to extract new data about the ball movement, player movements and team structures. This coupled with existing biometrics and game event data will provide new insights to better understand players decision making, team defensive structures, offensive running channels, player injuries and competitors’ tactics.

    TIP: Those organisations that make use of artificial intelligence will gain a competitive advantage and allow them to gain access to new and exciting insights.

  • Agile Human Centred Culture – Accenture and Rugby Australia’s journey over the last 4 years has seen has work in a close trusted partnership. At the heart of this has been the creation of a 5-year roadmap to create an insights-driven organisation through an agile, human-centred approach. Through a range of spreadsheets, channels and deliverables Rugby Australia is prioritising business problems, unique designs and rich user experiences to provide relevant insights to the right people anywhere, anytime.

    TIP: An organisation’s journey to an insights-driven culture takes time. Being agile and attuned to all your business stakeholders’ needs is not optional but essential.

The next step for sport in Australia will be to connect platforms across codes and include Olympic sports, enabling us to cross-reference complementary capabilities and learnings from different disciplines. We’ve all heard stories about the injured runner who became a champion rower, or a former gymnast who became a world champion aerial ski jumper. Using a truly connected platform we find our next sports stars from the most unlikely places.

Similarly, as industries converge and ‘frenemies’ collaborate, businesses need to start thinking about whose data platforms they can leverage to gain valuable insights from across their ecosystem. The progress made in the sporting field can have a direct impact on a range of industries including Mining, Health, Banking, Governments and Retail.

It’s an exciting time to be working as a Data Science leader. I may not look like Brad Pitt in Moneyball, but my aspirations are pretty similar: use data analytics to help my clients challenge conventional wisdom, beat the system – and win.

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