Learning From Kublai Khan: 5 Ways Advanced Analytics Can Help Organizations

Joseph Dennis Kelly

Leaders have much to learn from Kublai Khan’s military failures.

When the khan rose to power in 1260, the Mongol Empire was a much-feared power that ruled over the world’s largest-ever sovereignty. When he died in 1294, the empire was crumbling and began spiraling toward its 70-year collapse,  the direct result of Kublai Khan’s unrestrained spending on ill-conceived invasions  – in the east (into Japan), west (into modern Israel and Syria), and south (into Burma, Java, and modern Vietnam).

Had the khan been able to use advanced analytics software, he could have quickly assessed – using real-time intelligence and predictive insights – enemy movements, foreign terrains, and the Mongol army’s performance. But instead, his force of skilled and feared warriors fell in battles they should have won.

Starting with the Basics

Advanced analytics can help leaders get – from Big Data – near-instant, fact-based insights about a vast number of emerging and hidden opportunities, threats, and trends. Using the software also involves risk: Organizations can get distracted by the functionality gained and lost in the vast streams of information abstracted, possibly to the point of inaction. As Dan Vesset, IDC’s VP for Business Analytics, notes, “BI and analytics technology…is never an end in itself…[but rather must support] decision makers…[and] lead to actions based on insight and augmented with experience.” Transforming insight into achievable action begins with rethinking strategy.

Traditionally, strategies were built using gut feelings and outdated information. Such models ignored rigorous inquiry and too often focused on resolving perceived issues. New approaches to strategy-making focus on the present and future and support creative thinking and scientific inquiry; these are geared toward helping leaders proactively identify opportunities and make choices – using accurate, reliable, and real-time intelligence. Had the khan used this type of strategy, the Mongol story may have turned out differently.

Arming the Organization

Because Kublai Khan and his commanders lacked access to real-time intelligence, the Mongol army did not have the intelligence needed to win. This lack meant the Mongols were unprepared – physically, tactically, and logistically – for their battles.

Advanced analytics and a proactive strategy could have helped the Mongols improved the five areas that Vessel says are optimized by “80% of the most competitive organizations”:

  • Training: During several invasions, the Mongol army found it was unaccustomed to the opponent’s terrain, climate, and environment. When they invaded Syria in 1260 and 1262, it was the desert and the heat which beat them. When they went into Burma in 1277 and 1283, it was disease and the jungle – and not the Burmese – that defeated the Mongols. Had the Mongols understood the risks and prepared for the conditions, they may have fared better.
  • Tactics: The Dai Viet were masters of jungle fighting, skilled in luring their enemies deep in the jungle and into tiger traps. Had the Mongols understood the Dai Viet’s long-practiced approach, they could have avoided the traps and developed tactics to counter the Dai Viet’s strategy.
  • Governance: Had the khan established and followed guidelines for evaluating enemies and determining his army’s ability to defeat them, he may have made better decisions and not used revenge or greed as the fire fueling his invasions, such as he did in the Dai Viet campaigns.
  • Chain-of-command: The Mongol’s 1281 invasion of Japan – the deadliest naval battle in history, leaving more than 130,000 Mongol troops dead – was mismanaged, with ships launching from several ports and then sporadically retreating. Had commanders coordinated their maneuvers, they could have countered the devastating night attacks from samurai.
  • Expectations: The Mongol’s 1281 invasion of Japan, fueled by the khan’s anger over a thwarted invasion in 1274, failed because the khan set an unrealistic launch date and promised to execute shipbuilders who could not deliver on time. To avoid death, shipbuilders slashed quality. In the end, many Mongol ships sank because the seas – in the Korea and Tsushima Straights – proved too rough for the weak ships. Had the khan set realistic expectations, maneuvers abandoned because of the lost ships may have been realized.

Making choices in today’s uncertain and complex world requires more than trusting a gut feeling, relying past results, and striving to resolve problems. To compete, leaders need to see the possibilities and focus on opportunities. When armed with advanced analytics and a proactive strategy, organizations are better equipped to make the most feasible choices for realizing core objectives.

Is advanced analytics helping your company make better choices and avoid critical mistakes? 

Image via Wikipedia: Portrait of Kublai Khan by Anige (also known as Araniko) of Nepal, an astronomer, engineer, painter, and confidant of the khan.


About Joseph Dennis Kelly

Joseph is a senior-level editorial and communication specialist with more than twenty years experience in StratCom, MarCom, CrisCom, EditGov, and EditOps. He previously served as a senior editor/writer on SAP’s Global Content Team and as the executive editor of PMI's Knowledge Center. He contributes to the SAP Community Network (SCN), serving as space editor for the Social Media and Social Networks blog. Recent accomplishments include directing SAP’s blogging campaign for Social Media Week 2012, leading the editorial and blogging strategy for SVForum’s inaugural MarketingCamp–Silicon Valley, and developing the digital media strategy for a Pennsylvania state senator’s successful 2012 re-election campaign. @JosDenKelly