Seeing is believing

Data visualisation helps business leaders predict what will happen next.

Read time 3min 40sec

Data visualisation is a key component to speed to insight. In an increasingly dynamic and competitive environment, executives need to know more than what the numbers say - they need to know why the numbers say it.

In my previous Industry Insight, "Quality is queen", I outlined the data quality imperative. Data consumers need to be able to trust the data implicitly in order for business intelligence (BI) solutions to be integrated successfully into the company.

But in order for the information to be consumed, and for it to impact the decision-making process, the data needs to be presented in a way that not only outlines what has already happened, but enables decision-makers to predict what will happen next, given different business scenarios.

Information must be given perspective. If business leaders can't see the context in which an event occurred, then they cannot know what caused a change or what impact the change had on the company. It is no longer enough for BI companies to deliver static reports. Clients need to see and understand the competitive advantage of being able to make better business decisions faster. They need actionable intelligence provided to them efficiently and through a platform that enables them to answer important questions about their business.

Question time

Despite BI being a relatively mature industry, this is easier said than done. In many cases, BI developers are technical, software-focused and spend the majority of time getting the data into a format that looks good and works well with the underlying data. Few developers have the business background, or have been sufficiently trained, to ask the pertinent questions, such as: "Does this HR report give insight into retention?" or "How will this report help my client or boss to better predict their procurement spend against budget?"

It is not enough to rely on full analysis having been done beforehand. Data visualisation is an iterative process, as deep insight is often only achieved once a report or dashboard has been through a number of changes, over a period of time. In addition, BI consultants can't always rely on the business consumer being able to give insight into what they want to see in the way they want to see it. In some cases, they don't know what they don't know until they see it.

The difference between merely allowing business users to view their data, and giving them the tools to ask questions of the data, relies on different factors.

Big picture

BI consultants should have some business insight as well as the necessary analytic tool experience. When designing data visualisation, consultants need to understand the bigger picture enough to be able to guide the end-user through the questions they would need to ask to get the report in the right format. It isn't only 'what' but 'why' that is relevant.

Users building data visualisations also need to be wary of falling into common design traps. For the sake of appearance, inappropriate chart elements may be added, distorting the business picture being presented. Too much information may be presented at once, distracting the consumer from real trends emerging. Frequently, errors such as inconsistent scales or comparisons may be used.

Information must be given perspective.

Analytic tools also need to have the flexibility to allow users to input different business questions. BI initiatives may fail if the cost of implementing them rises too quickly, as reports and dashboards proliferate without the real business issues being uncovered quickly. Consumers need to be able to ask and answer the question: "So what?"

"Excellence in statistical graphics consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency," writes information visualisation guru and author Edward R Tufte. This is true of data visualisation, but I would take it one step further and add that data visualisation in and of itself is of little use if the users aren't taking the information and asking the pertinent business questions to aid making better decisions, faster.

Nicholas Bell

CEO of Decision Inc.

Nicholas Bell is CEO of Decision Inc, where he is responsible for driving the strategic and operational vision of the company. His focus is on building an organisation that clients will trust to provide an enhanced capability to make informed decisions. Bell holds a BCom honours degree from the University of Johannesburg. He was one step away from becoming a chartered accountant, when the opportunity of building and running SAB’s Merchandising System arose. This opportunity appealed to his entrepreneurial spirit and enabled him to establish his own business, BusinessIntelligent. Bell quickly realised the potential represented by a new BI technology and became a reseller and implementation partner of QlikView South Africa. He leveraged this opportunity by using his understanding of technology and business to support clients in developing and deploying business intelligence solutions. Bell built BusinessIntelligent into the largest Qlikview partner in SA, servicing a variety of the country’s blue-chip companies and their operations in other African countries. BusinessIntelligent’s success has been recognised by Qlikview, with awards for Exceptional Achievement in South Africa and for Excellence and Achievement at the 2012 Global Partners Awards event in Miami. BusinessIntelligent also achieved the Partner Excellence Award for 2013. Realising there exists a real need in the market for an organisation that supports the decision-making process through matching business analysis with technical skills, Bell has been instrumental in merging together BusinessIntelligent, ASYST Intelligence and the Microsoft division of DigiQuill, a Cyest company. With Decision Inc, he will continue to build on his success by driving consistent growth.

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