Ever since Charles Joseph Minard's 1869 representation of Napoleon's march and retreat from Russia, visualization has been an accepted and worthwhile tool to understand complex situations.1 The business intelligence (BI) tool vendors have taken the ideas of visualization to help our business colleagues better understand the complexities of their sales, finance, inventory control, customer attrition, employee attrition, customer service performance and much more. They have also used the flash and bling to help sell their products. Bling, a term from the rapper world, is flashy jewelry, usually large and over the top. BI bling could be, for example, a 3-D representation of colonoscopy outcomes. In the May 2006 issue of BI Review, Howard Spielman makes the point that 3-D can  be free of meaning and can also be misleading; so, the us of visualization and how the results are understood should be monitored and any inappropriate methods of analysis should be corrected. If visualization is to be a major part of BI delivery, it is important that the user training include workshops and case studies that help to interpret visual representations of information.

Some of you would say that these visualizations can help the business understand their metrics and that a word is worth only one-thousandth of a picture. This may be true; problems are displayed on a dashboard in red once an alert has been detected, or positive results are shown in pastoral green (management always wants the calming effect of mellow colors). While the visualization can provide a holistic view of various aspects of the business, astute business managers will always want to see the specific numbers that caused the terrible results or bask in the glow of measurements for which they take credit.

BI vendors have taken visualization to the extreme, and now some of their tools border on bling. While the BI vendors reference the capabilities of their products, bling is what they demonstrate because bling will help them sell their tools. You sell the sizzle, not the steak. IT folks may feel they are immune to such approaches and that only a naive businessperson would be impressed and make the bling the deciding factor in the selection process. BI vendors do market to the business, and I normally recommend that the final decision-makers for the BI tools should be the businesspeople (from a short list developed by the technologists). The danger is that the BI vendor will so overwhelm the business with their bling that the true BI requirements for the organization will be missed. The important question is the place of visualization in the selection process. Is it a "nice to have" or is it mandatory, and should it be the final tiebreaker? There is an advantage to bling in that, in some cases, it could make for greater acceptance of the data warehouse and could help with internal selling to bring a larger percentage of users into the fold.

Clearly State Requirements

When you explain to the BI vendors what you are looking for and what you want demonstrated, make it clear how the business will be using the tool to make the important business decisions, and, that except for alerts or some specific visual requirement, bling will not be a deciding factor. You should further suggest to the vendor that they use examples that will demonstrate how your organization will use the tool - the clever vendors will use examples from your industry. Not putting an emphasis on bling does not mean you should settle for an ugly interface or, more importantly, for an interface that is difficult to navigate or understand. In fact, ease of navigation and understandability should be two of the mandatory requirements for the BI tool.

The user community is composed of power users, statisticians, casual users, report recipients, some technophobes and, of course, executives. The BI tool should satisfy this broad range of users, especially the BI business analysts, and the decision for the tool should not be driven solely by the executives' desires for bling at the expense of the needs of the rest of the user community. The capabilities of the BI tools include standard reporting, business metrics, financial reporting and regulatory reporting, but the differentiating benefits will come from the BI business analysts. The BI tools themselves should make the BI business analysts much more productive and should measurably shorten their turnaround time, which in turn should generate more queries that produce actionable information. The BI tools should give the BI business analysts the ability to explore the vast array of data at their disposal, and then they can truly become what Lou Russell of Russell Martin & Associates calls information detectives instead of data reporters.  

Reference:

  1. Edward R. Tufte. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, Conn: Graphics Press, 2001, 2006.    

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