The role of data visualisation in communication, conceptualisation and business decision-making is becoming more important as the amount of information we need to digest grows.
The amount of available, accessible data has grown exponentially. It far outstrips the needs of managers, executives and business owners responsible for strategic time-dependent decisions. In a fast-paced, dynamic business environment time is money and the onus is increasingly on the user to select relevant data and rapidly return it as information that informs knowledge-based decision-making. Data visualisation can circumvent laborious interpretation of complex business reports. Delivering information in a meaningful, visual context simplifies the process of astute decision-making, converting business intelligence (BI) into visual intelligence.
Data becomes information when key fragments are combined or viewed through a conceptual filter. Information is then fed into the knowledge structure of the user or viewer. While classification, association, clustering and recognising sequential repeating patterns will facilitate knowledge discovery, the user's experience, expertise and familiarity with underlying causal phenomena, theories and rules, as well as the purpose or intent will influence results.
The margin for error is large, however. Users must pore through spreadsheets, pdfs, html documents and more to find the gems of data they need to obtain an overview of their operations and performance, as well as delve deeply into reporting data to find anomalies and track change. Where the user of such data lacks experience, domain-specific knowledge or solid business, numerical or technical skills, glaring problems may go unnoticed until they become a crisis or negatively impact performance or profits.
A further challenge is presenting such data to colleagues and customers who almost certainly will not have the necessary depth of knowledge or familiarity with the data that the presenter has. Exhaustive depiction of mind-numbing rows and columns of figures and linear presentations of data sets in simple graphical formats offer little contextualisation or overview of the issue at hand, placing greater reliance on the language skills and accumulated knowledge of the presenter to enable comprehension.
The answer for many lies in data visualisation. Visualisation has been found to be directly related to comprehension, expression and critical thinking. Complex, high-dimensional data presents special challenges to graphical display, however, and the proportion of managers in South Africa currently using visualisation tools to analyse data is still low.
The reason for this is that while data visualisation tools are available, many are too costly, elementary or proprietary to be of use in investigating data in multiple formats across diverse applications and platforms.
Executive dashboards offer assistance with at-a-glance overviews of key performance indicators, but are not easily customisable. Specially developed following months of design, they are soon found to be too inflexible in their graphic display, offering limited opportunity to manipulate data for planning purposes.
Dashboards do, however, display some of the key benefits that visualisation demands. The ideal solution would be the development of a visual template into which data feeds to reflect multifactor comparatives in different dimensions. This would open the way to the discernment of patterns and trends within the data and also allow for drill-down and overviews. If easily customisable, the user will be able to investigate underlying causal factors or alter underlying assumptions to assess impact on related systems, operations and current and future performance.
The good news is that technology has caught up with demand. There are now proven data visualisation software solutions available at retail commodity prices in South Africa. They are platform independent, easy to use, and designed to simplify comprehension of complex data and enable business discovery and planning. They work with all widely-used sources of company data, from ordinary Excel spreadsheets, to elaborate enterprise and business intelligence databases and SOAP-based Web services. Data from these sources can also be converted into dynamic, Flash-animated charts and graphs, with realtime what-if analysis and one-click deployment to PowerPoint presentations, intranets and the Web.
These solutions offer the user specialised templates containing commonly used best practice formulae for application in the creation of comprehensive sales, HR, financial and other domain-specific dashboards. Myriad tools, including pre-built components, skins, maps and charts, are available to enable users to also easily create their own presentations or dashboards.
Fully customisable, these data visualisation systems allow the user to explore data at a more abstract level and incorporate new items as they are found. Cognitive, perceptual and intuitive skills can be applied to see data in different perspectives. This makes identification of critical data relationships easier and allows executives to peer into the company's financial future, better classify risk and opportunity, and shorten the decision- making process.
Internationally, general excess of information and a growing requirement to use data visualisation as a thinking, planning and presentation tool has enticed future 500 companies - the likes of American Express, Time Warner, JP Morgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, Ford, Coca-Cola, AT&T; and Dell - to adopt these solutions.
What must be taken into account, however, is that creation of useful visual presentations is reliant on users' insight. Successful communication of complex situations requires forethought and familiarity with the priorities of the target audience.
With technology having advanced and commoditised sufficiently to put data visualisation within reach of the ordinary business person, fast adoption is expected. In essence, it is a business tool that could well become standard issue for the Information Age.
Gary Cook, CEO of Leaderboard