Math phobia drives me nuts. We all know there are lots of former English majors in the marketing and sales departments who appear to have an allergy to math. In most cases it’s simply due to fear or ignorance based on a lousy experience in elementary school that typically led to bad deals on car leases or other major purchases.
However, their aversion to doing a deep dive into a pool of data to glean an understanding of a trend or otherwise gain insights has been a major impediment to empowering legions of customer service reps, telemarketers, sales clerks and other front-line staff. And it frequently leads to some rudimentary help desk requests (a manager once asked me how to calculate a percentage).
The rise of the integrated graphics component of early spreadsheets 20-plus years ago enabled a small subset of corporate users to better determine trends from mounds of numbers. In the past few years, though, advanced data visualization has vastly improved the ability of IT to ease the math phobic into the growing mainstream analytics movement.
Indeed, a new survey by Dresner Advisory Services is finding that advanced data visualization is moving from an esoteric capability into the mainstream. Preliminary responses to Howard Dresner's latest annual business intelligence and analytics deployment survey found that advanced visualization is the fourth most important technology in organizations’ business intelligence strategy and plans (see table below).
Advanced visualization ranked way higher in importance than Big Data, the cloud, social media analytics and a host of other major BI buzzwords du jour, according to the roughly 400 respondents to the global survey of IT and business unit managers at organizations of all sizes. On a rising scale of importance, from one to five, they rated advanced visualization at 3.8, within spitting distance of the top-rated technology, dashboards:
"By advanced visualization I mean extensive use of color, size, shape, 3D, texture, motion, etc. to convey meaning," explains Howard Dresner, the former Gartner analyst who’s known for coining the phrase business intelligence. "This would include heat maps and tree maps."
Providing advanced analytics to a wide variety of knowledge workers, managers, executives and professionals within an organization is also becoming crucial as more companies embark on Big Data adventures. As Dresner notes, "as the volume of data grows in volume and complexity, visualization helps to make sense of it more readily."
Another important shift in the use of advanced analytics is the broadening of the industry interest. Traditionally, financial services, telecommunications companies, the government, pharma and bio tech and consumer packaged goods companies were the only users of advanced visualization. Not so, according to early survey results – advanced visualization is considered very important across all sectors these days.
While interest in analyzing social media traffic is in its infancy, and the tools remain immature, the importance of using advanced visualization to process and highlight key trends is clear. Heat maps and other graphical ways of depicting relative interest in certain topics or issues are becoming standard operating procedure in most companies as a way of successfully communicating trends to the masses.
Indeed, preliminary survey results show that advanced visualization, dashboards and the other key technologies have led to a rather strong endorsement of business intelligence in general. When asked whether their BI implementations are considered a success by their organizations, more than eight out of 10 respondents agreed, to one extent or another. Prior surveys I've done in the past found similarly high levels of success and regard for BI implementations. This is quite a refreshing change from the normal condemnation of other enterprise applications over the years.
The future of advanced visualization is being driven by a few key trends in addition to Big Data and the cloud. The rise of in-memory appliances enables a wide range of users to interactively manipulate the data in real time.
"Interactive visualization," as noted in an upcoming report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, is the result of having a lot of computer horsepower applied to a lot of data with a series of advanced visualization tools. For example, PwC's report (it will be posted online in a few weeks) will predict that the statistical analysis packages once only fathomed by spreadsheet jockeys are being encapsulated in more user friendly interfaces as well as providing better visualization outputs.
Dresner and others note that many of these advanced visualization tools, initially introduced by start-ups like Tableau, are now finding their way into mainstream BI toolsets from Oracle and SAP Business Objects. Being part of the almost ubiquitous enterprise platform used by millions of staffers will definitely drive more and better decisions, and maybe make a few math phobics more comfortable with data.
One can only hope.
By the way, if you want to participate in the current BI survey by Howard Dresner, and get an early look at the final report, go to this survey web site.