As businesses get into the dirty work of advanced analytics, better business intelligence and monetization of new information streams, data visualization has found new footing as a way to make sense of all this data. For a clearer picture of the state of visualization, Information-Management.com recently talked with Andy Rusnak, Americas region leader of Ernst & Young’s Enterprise Intelligence practice, which covers BI, analytics, performance management and all related integration and presentation layers. In his role as a consultant (and as an in-house software vendor adviser before that), Rusnak has long been active in client delivery of information with a business-first mindset. 

Information-Management.com: In terms of the culture of acceptance of visualization tools, or even the tools themselves, what is the biggest challenge you see shaking up businesses?

Rusnak: The first challenge remains deciding whether it’s driven by IT or by the business. Typically, if it’s driven by business, it’s a little bit easier to figure out what you want. With visualization, you’re really at the point of the spear. It’s where business information is delivered to a business leader to make a decision. So, obviously, the closer you can get to the business, the easier it is to deploy a visualization strategy.

But I think the challenge remains that the people who are savvier with the capabilities of the technology are on the IT side. The challenge becomes how effective can IT be with mobilizing business on this technology. This takes you away from the classic systems development lifecycle and methodology, and it puts you in the more agile framework, which a lot of clients I’ve seen are not comfortable. That “fail-fast-forward” idea, pulling down some data, present it, great, and if that doesn’t work, fine, move on. That’s a huge shift. Many of our larger enterprise clients are leaders in other areas of the IT space, but they have a hard time, from an IT perspective, getting out there on agile development. But I think it’s mandatory.

It seems like behind these other trendy discussion on big data and the like, data visualization is getting pushed to the front?

It almost seems like the bigger the data gets, the question moves to making the data consumable. Maybe five or 10 years ago, we were focused a heck of a lot more on the data warehouse tool space, but not it seems we’ve taken a turn toward getting business answers to its questions to better run what they do now. And that’s where the social and unstructured stuff factors into visualization, big time. And it goes all the way to the extreme we’re seeing now: data rooms for clients to interact with graphics, like on “Hawaii Five-0,” with the walls that surround people with visualized data and dashboards. Those tend to be rare and more cutting edge, but my feeling is that in five years, it’s going to be all about master data management and consumption.

Is this translating to more casual users? Or even better expressions from power users and business analysts? There has long been this promise of business users doing more than cranking out a report with one pie chart.

You mean, are they using something other than Excel? (Laughs.) Another emerging trend is that we’re seeing increasing amounts of work done in the Tableau and Spotfire space, and more interest from our clients in terms of creating – I almost hate to use the word “dashboard” – an interactive environment. They want something where they can actively model and plan the data, instead of view a static dashboard. Yes, Excel is still by far the most popular tool for casual users, but from a visualization and consumption perspective, trying to corral that use across the organization makes much more sense. We’re beginning to see that much more with the advent of these advanced BI visualization tools.

Not to continue to beat the big data drum, but with frameworks like Hadoop, where unstructured and varied data are able to be crunched more quickly, are you finding the visualization side of the equation is keeping up?

It almost depends on which of the players you talk to. ... Some of the leaders on visualization are clearly focused on this consumption idea. The usability of Hadoop in terms of managing and manipulating large volumes of data is interesting, but not entirely useful if you don’t have a pretty clear picture of what you want to use the data for. We’re seeing a much bigger trend of people who would traditionally be in that data management space talking about consumer-grade applications to address business problems. We always hear this analogy of creating your own Apple “app store” for data consumption and visualization ...

Even when the vendors are presenting these applications, the app store templates look exactly like iTunes.

Right, and it’s a great concept. Every business is asking questions about profitability. Every business is asking questions about customers, or their marketing efforts. To me, the more that you zero-in on the questions you’re trying to answer for business, the easier it is to make the applications more homogenous. Certainly, SAP is going down this path, IBM is going down this path, and the major players are moving in that direction, though they’re not there, by any stretch of the imagination. ... From the evolutionary perspective of this, we’re really at that consumerization of IP or application thinking.

More on the here-and-now practical side of enterprise IT, mobility is something that is increasingly in every enterprise businessperson’s palm or briefcase. Is this blind-siding business in terms of their visualization plans? Or is it forcing them to leap forward, as they take on a whole crop of new tablets or applications so quickly?

I don’t know that it’s blind-siding them. I think the strategy isn’t intentional. You hear too often that, ‘Hey, the guys in marketing bought a bunch of iPads and they want to build this app’ as opposed to, ‘What should our blueprint be for mobility? How is it going to advance the view of our business?’ We tell our clients that they can do a lot of things. But what should they do to make their business better on a mobile platform? It’s like early on in the dot-com phase, when everyone was putting everything up on the Internet, whether it should be on the Internet or not. You can present business data on an iPad, but that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. Let’s be intentional with our strategy for the digital enterprise, and then start letting people innovate with mobile visualizations.

Let’s say I’m a CIO or the head of a department in an enterprise, and I want to get better with the visualization side of the data my business is using. What are some general suggestions for modernization of that visualization practice?

I’d apply the same principles as when you tackle an agile analytics program. Go engage with tech-savvy members of your business community and ask for four or five business questions they have a hard time answering. Then, go back into the data hierarchy and present some of that data back to them. See if it is useful. Pull out the ... visualization platform you’re most interested in and experiment with presenting that interactive panel. This should pretty rapidly help you focus on areas where you can and should apply these tools. Focusing on a business question is very different than focusing on automating a business process. It’s much more nimble, much more targeted. You can still have an enterprise strategy, but the answers aren’t based on the same enterprise-wide questions.

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