Visualize Your Data

August 15, 2011
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Many organizations continue to struggle implementing BI tools. We all know the usual suspects:

Many organizations continue to struggle implementing BI tools. We all know the usual suspects:

  • bad data
  • the tendency of organizations to over-customize, causing problems down the road
  • the difficult of getting buy-in on standard definitions
  • other IT priorties
  • vendor “challenges”
  • end user unwillingness to let go of old standbys.

As a result, relatively few executives and decision makers in large organizations have access to simple yet effective dashboards. Lacking accurate and timely data–and a means to comprehend it, they often make suboptimal decisions. Call these errors of commission. What’s more, they’ll often fail to make any decision when they should. Call these errors of omission.

Ironically, small business owners like me can quickly visualize their data and drill down as needed. Consider two dashboards I use on a daily basis. The first is from my website, run on the WordPress platform:

And here’s the dashboard for my Kickstarter project for my fourth book, The Age of the Platform:


I don’t show examples of my own dashboards to be boastful. Rather, I just want to prove that it doesn’t take a great deal of time or money be able to interact with and visualize your data. We see here that being small can be a major advantage, especially since pre-built dashboards come with many products and web-based services these days.

Going the Pre-Built Route

There’s no panacea to the aforementioned data and organizational problems. However, today businesses of all types are taking a shortcut by purchasing and deploying Prebuilt Analytic Applications (PAAs). PAAs can allow end users to better understand their data. In theory, they can then make superior decisions.

PAAs represent a legitimate alternative to custom-built BI tools. These ready-made, off-the-shelf applications come pre-loaded with industry-specific metrics and definitions. Once linked to an organization’s systems, PAAs can provide meaningful insight into micro and macro trends.

PAAs are increasingly being deployed in industries such as banking, insurance health care, and retail in a number of different lines of business. Implementations have run the gamut, including customer service, human resources, finances, and sales.

Let’s look at HR for a moment. PAAs exist that allow organizations to do the following:

  • Quickly identify their best employees–as well as those who are not meeting expectations.
  • Track progress of employees as they are trained and advanced within the organization.
  • Allow managers to monitor how employees are performing against a vast array of key metrics.
  • Spot disturbing trends in absenteeism, sickness, and employee turnover.
  • Identify emerging payroll-related issues, such as excessive overtime in a department, store, or division.

This isn’t rocket science here. It’s easier to spot outliers on a graph or chart than it is on a plain-text report or a spreadsheet.

Simon Says: Visualization and Interactivity are Key

It doesn’t matter if your organization uses a PAA, a best-of-breed and customized BI tool such as IBM Cognos, or an open source BI tool such as Pentaho. Make sure that you have a dashboard. They are becoming increasingly useful and important. After all, how realistic is it to expect your employees to make accurate decisions with a morass of spreadsheets, databases, and static reports–especially when those items are static and non-interactive? Even free and low-cost tools such as Tableau can provide enormously valuable insights into your company’s data. Don’t believe me? Check out this interactive dashboard for bankers.

It doesn’t make sense that small business owners like me can more easily visualize and interact with their data than organizations with hundreds of times as many resources. Look at different options to change this.

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