The BI and Data Visualisation Mistake Your Organisation Probably Makes

“It can’t hurt, right?” is the mindset of a lot of executives and managers when it comes to their business intelligence or data visualisation strategy. There is an approach to implementing data analysis and visualisation strategies that says that “doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing”.

I blame the thousands of IT vendors, consultants and bloggers who paint every new advancement in data analytics as a magical silver bullet. They’re like fitness bloggers who promise, for just one hour a day of their program, you can get muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In truth, doing something — anything — can hurt. That’s why, according to Gartner, there are so many organisations that fail to implement and see a positive ROI from their big data initiative. Too many organisations jump right in and assume they will figure out the details as they go along.

If you’re not careful, your BI or data visualisation strategy could do you more harm than good.

Welcome to part two of our five-part series on data visualisation. In the last article, we looked at how data visualisation could benefit your organisation. Today, we’re going to explore the biggest data visualisation mistake most organisations make when trying to find insights from their data.

A Road to the Wrong Insights

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask,” said Albert Einstein.

There are two approaches you can have when it comes to your data visualisation strategy: idea- and progress-centric.

An idea-centric process is about finding the right ideas, answering the right questions, and starting with the right strategy. A progress-centric process is about getting started and it dominates our industry.

For example:

  • Proponents of the progress-centric approach worry more about the colour palette of their chart than whether or not they’re actually sharing any meaningful insights.
  • The idea-centric proponents realise that their initial strategy will be mediocre. If they jumped at their initial strategy, they would likely find it hard to produce an effective return on their investment.
  • Proponents of the progress-centric approach believe success comes down to picking the right software and adding a fancy chart module to their dashboard.
  • Idea-centric proponents start by looking at the organisation’s needs before making a purchasing decision.
  • Proponents of the idea-centric approach ask themselves the hard questions. “Why are we building this? What are we hoping to learn? What way do we need to structure our data so that we can get the best insight?”

The Biggest Mistake

The biggest business intelligence and data visualisation mistake an organisation makes is deprioritising their strategy in the interest of just getting started. This leads the execution of the BI strategy to be left in the hands of designers and IT staff — who tend to be progress-centric focused and often have little idea about what the business actually needs!

When that happens, your visuals become about “looking good” rather than insights. The technology is sometimes about getting the right tool on the IT staff’s resume, rather than using what they have already on hand, that might not be a sexy new toy. Data visualisation is also often synonymous with the expression “information graphic,” or infographic. When given to designers, the focus is more on graphic than information. Design starts to trump data.

Unfortunately, the data is usually considered as an afterthought rather than a critical piece of the process. Poor data visualisation leads to a muddled message, and ultimately, poorly-executed and ineffective decisions.

And finally, often a tool is chosen that allows users to load their own data into it and then create pretty dashboards. Dashboards that look awesome. But have crap, unverified data, that is disconnected from your corporate systems and has all sorts of governance risks in it. By doing this, you are taking the problems you had in the old days when you used csv files and Excel and are moving the problem to the shiny new toy. Don’t do it. Connect your BI and visualisation tools direct to your corporate data warehouse or ERP. Put a governance system in place and don’t allow users to create their own graphics from personally developed data.

A Costly Decision and Insight

The right data is more important than the right design. Let me give you an example of a company that acted too fast on the wrong data, and how it cost billions.

About a decade ago, Airbus built their first A380 — a jumbo plane that promised to be the future of aviation. They believed that clogged runways would create demand for larger planes that could deliver more people with fewer landing slots.

They were wrong. After spending $25 billion and ten years to develop it, the company will soon cease building any new jumbo planes. John Leahy, the company’s chief operating officer, admits that they miscalculated and gained the wrong insights from their data.

The Airbus A380’s poor performance has pulled down the success of the company as a whole.

You see, having data isn’t enough. Neither is taking the data and throwing it into a fancy chart. You need to make sure you’re analysing the right data and you’re structuring it the right way. Otherwise, you may gain the wrong insights.

Don’t be fooled. Data visualisation is more than asking your designer to add an additional module to your analytics platform.

It’s hard work. It requires an executive to ask and answers the hard questions. Designers favour aesthetics over insights.

In the next post of the series, we will look at the strategy to represent your data the right way.

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John Vaughan

John Vaughan is a highly experienced Accountant and Consultant. He has experience in the pharmaceutical, FMCG, distribution, professional services, manufacturing and financial service industries. With over 25 years of commercial experience and 20 years working with the Cognos products, he...

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