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Visualization: New Ways to Weave Data into Your Business Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on the Blue Ocean Strategy for Decision Visualization

Originally published June 18, 2013

In my previous article, “How to Manage the Visualization Content Revolution,” I discussed the impact of new visualization tools and the need for organizations to change behaviors. I also provided ideas you could immediately put into play and begin to accelerate the value of data and visualization to increase revenue/decrease cost, provide superior customer service or establish higher marketing ROI.

Now it’s time to start the hard work, and it’s a big first step. You need to manage visualization as being strategic to your success, not just as the activity of making a chart. Rethinking the work of visualization creates opportunities to weave data into the business in completely new ways. This leads to better and faster decisions.

I am asking you to keep an open mind and see the possibilities of reshaping your organization. Also, over time you will come across situations where these changes are occurring organically. You now have a reference point to recognize exactly what’s happening and to help steer your organization in the right direction.

Your organization will go through a series of transformations, beginning from the tactical work of making charts and rising to a delivery model with entirely new functional and operational roles. Here are the four stages of transformation:

DATA-DRIVEN: Most organizations work this way. They rely on IT to deliver visuals, which analysts piece together with an eye toward developing insights. Business teams also periodically receive Excel files and build their own charts, which includes the heavy lifting of manipulating, aggregating and organizing data.

Forward-thinking companies are purchasing software that allows business users more flexibility to work with data and build visuals. This includes connecting directly to databases, developing interactivity and publishing dashboards that teams access via browsers. Users must also elevate their game from being chart builders to visualization practitioners that lead by best practice.

Software and hardware are not silver bullets that will dramatically solve your data problems or consistently uncover meaningful insights. In fact, many teams focus on data without a solid understanding of what business decisions they are trying to enable. It’s time to make it easy for others to literally see their decisions, rather than the data – put your new software and skills to work.

In addition to learning new software and viz techniques, there is a scope of considerations that will change the structure of your approach to BI. You need to speed up your turn-around time, measure the use and impact of visuals, provide top-notch customer support and market your work (you can’t just build something and expect it to be wildly successful).
Each transformation has a range of detailed activities that are executed over months. What follows is a strategic framework of how your team needs to break away from its long-standing principles, governance models, roles and responsibilities, etc. Also, the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne is a great foundation that will help you get even more from this series of articles.

So how do you begin to transition away from data-driven and toward decision visualization? The key is to understand what work is actually going on (or not), and decide to do more or less of that activity. Here’s how I view the work of business intelligence, dissected into 11 components. This article starts with three, and I will cover the rest in future articles, bringing together the entire blue ocean strategy.
  1. Visualization Training
  3. Executive Directive
  5. Bold Design
  6. IT Reporting 
  7. Storytelling
  8. Conversation
  9. Interactivity 
  10. Openness
  11. Speed
  12. Lifecycle Management
  13. Customer Focus

1. Visualization Training

Almost everyone can use a tool like Excel to create a chart – but that doesn’t mean they know how to create a visualization. You must learn this skill and practice diligently. There are many books, classes, and websites dedicated to this topic. I strongly urge you to take a class for concentrated learning. Then when dealing with folks who want to tell you how to make a good visual, you can just say, “This is what I learned in class.”

Devoted software training is also required. Do not expect your team to quickly master the fundamentals while doing the rest of their job. As a result, there is a high risk many will perceive the visualization software as ineffective or hard to use. If Excel training was mandatory, I bet we would all like it a lot more.

The last, and most critical, piece is that IT and business people must take the training together – in the same room. Bring in other functional groups as makes sense. You will build a common foundation, and the teams will naturally begin to ask questions and address long-standing challenges in a low pressure way.

You should also consider investing so teams have support for the next month or two after training. First, this shows organizational commitment. Second, people are motivated to experiment and push themselves, knowing they have a quick way to get unstuck. Third, feedback from whomever is providing support lets you gauge progress and understand potential issues when you want to expand the rollout.

2. Executive Directive

In addition to putting money on the table, management has a responsibility to actively and vocally support the changes required of everyone to work in new ways. Get them into (at least part of) the training – participation makes their talk credible, provides an opportunity to hear from the front line, and lets them speak knowledgeably about the training to their peers (and bosses).

I am sure you have seen how engaged folks are with senior management. Make sure to block 15 minutes for your executive to give a pep talk and Q&A. If your executive doesn’t think this initiative is important enough to invest his or her time, you have to reconsider whether the entire investment is worthwhile – it’s that important!

Once the change is in motion, executives must reinforce using the new tools and ways of working. It’s too easy for someone to fall back on what they know because it takes less time, as they are not yet efficient in the new model (again, it’s so important to invest in continued support). For example, if you are moving to another tool from PowerPoint, do not allow anyone to present in PowerPoint. This may sound hardcore, but allowing old behavior weakens your initiative.

3. Bold Design

In the same way we may discuss an idea using different words to construct sentences, paragraphs, and so on, we can, and should, use different visuals for different communication goals. For example, here are three completely different ways to show actuals vs. targets. Same message, unique communication.

Figure 1: Actuals vs. Targets
© 2013 DecisionViz

One strength of emerging visualization tools such as Tableau is their ability to seamlessly transform a visual into another with literally one click. Therein also lies a challenge. You want to maintain consistent communication throughout your organization. Set and enforce guidelines for when/how to use each visual so that individuals do not create new versions "they like better." This is also efficient so teams do not recreate standardized work.

Are you oppressed by "the tyranny of pie charts™?” Unable to break free from ineffective visuals because you fear change (or more likely your organization fears change)? During your training (see #1: Visualization Training) you became educated about best practices and the foundations of visualization. Think back to a moment when you said to yourself, “That will never work!” Or maybe you brought it up for discussion – bravo. Well, you are going to make it work.

Your management and peers see you as a visualization leader. Take one visual and give yourself the freedom to reimagine communicating the intended message in a clear and compelling way. This is a step of personal growth and a step to move the organization forward. It might seem risky, but simply see this as proposing an alternative that’s open to conversation.

When you get feedback, have confidence in your new skills and don’t feel compelled to immediately explain your choices. Take a consultative approach to understand the underlying reasons. Ask what’s confusing and why. Your revised product will be leaps ahead of the status-quo work that has satisfied the organization for years.

Set Your Action Plan

We only covered three of my 11 points in this article (future articles will cover the remaining 8 points), but that should be enough to shake up your thinking. It’s likely you can use additional training. Sit down with your executives and agree on how they should communicate – and make sure they do it. Lastly, help your organization up their game and begin to see the impact of visualization. Excelsior!

  • Lee FeinbergLee Feinberg
    Lee is the Founder of DecisionViz, a management consultancy that helps companies “escape the legacy of reporting data by transforming complex data into simple pictures for making decisions.” Ten years ago, working with companies generating large amounts of Internet data, Lee realized that visualization would be a disruptive capability. Clients such as IBM, Ford, and Nokia have used his Decision Visualization™ business strategy and DRAW-ON™ visualization process to make data actionable. Industry leaders frequently ask Lee to address domestic and international audiences, most recently including O'Reilly Media Strata, Tableau Software European and North American Customer Conferences, TDWI, Data Modeling Zone, CBS Interactive, and WARC.  He is also the founder of the NJ and NY Tableau Software User Groups. Prior to founding DecisionViz, Lee joined Nokia in 2009 with the vision of “making data a part of every conversation.” His team launched data visualization services, providing 1000+ employees access to dashboards and analysis, under the credo "running business intelligence like a business." At Razorfish, Lee established an analytics management practice for the Ford Motor Company. At Digitas, Lee served on IBM’s corporate task force to define online metrics standards and introduced early interactive visualization technology.  Lee received a B.S. and M.S. from Cornell University and holds a U.S. Patent for a PC-telephone interface.  He is a member of the Cornell Entrepreneur Network and the Sandler Sales Institute. 

    Website: DecisionViz
    Email: Lee@DecisionViz.com
    Twitter: @DecisionViz
    LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/leefeinberg

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