Intelligent business

SpeedometerVisual representation of data usually provides much quicker insight into operations - vital for business analysis. As new visualisation tools allow ever more complex data to be presented better, Alan Bellinger considers how to make sure IT professionals are equipped with skills to make optimum use of visualisation.

There are two technology areas that are the key drivers behind the need for visualisation skills - they are business intelligence and rich internet applications. And anything you do as a learning and development manager to develop visualisation skills needs to be in the appropriate context.

Business intelligence

Business intelligence (BI) has changed dramatically: it was traditionally seen as a presentation layer that sat on top of the data management infrastructure. As such, it represented an online analytical processing application that provided ad hoc queries and relied on reporting tools that were used by senior management and business analysts. The audience was small, the data analysis was restricted, and output was relatively predictable.

Today, the focus is moving much more toward performance analysis which provides a much broader vision of pervasive BI, and makes the application far more strategic. BI therefore becomes an integrated part of the ongoing day-to-day processes, and a key enabler of decision-making. It requires that organisations shift the focus from technology that serves a small segment of decision makers, to a much broader initiative that puts people and business objectives first.

From our learning and development perspective, there are four key consequences of this change. The audience is larger, the presentation is more complex, there are critical skills impacts for both IT professionals and users and, finally, anyone involved in course development will be an experienced visualisation practitioner.

BI skills

For the IT professionals it's not just an issue of understanding the tools - it involves imagination, interpretation and empathy as well. And if they're to get the best outcomes, they'll need to be specialists in partnering and collaboration as well. It's the users who have the best ideas on what they’re looking for from BI, especially when it relates to performance management, and it’s the way in which the users can understand and interpret information that the business analysts need to understand if they’re to present it in the most effective way.

The real BI breakthroughs come when you compare multiple activities to each other; it's when you can spot the relationship between a number of different variables that insight is generated. For instance take the dashboard of your car where you can see the relationship between speed and revolutions per minute - or between the level of petrol and the distance to go.

The car dashboard is an excellent example of how to present a lot of information in a way that is highly visual.

Dashboards and scorecards

And dashboards are very effective in business as well. A dashboard is a visual means of reporting that summarises and displays metrics and key performance indicators. As a result, users can see at a glance anything that is unusual, and then they can drill down into the specifics to see exactly what is going on.

In effect, a dashboard is a very useful way of reporting key metrics that enable a knowledge worker to monitor and track performance via an aesthetic user interface. They employ visualisation components such as gauges, thermometers, dials and traffic lights.

Scorecards, on the other hand, are applications that help to measure and align the day-to-day operations to the overall business goals and objectives through target setting. Whilst dashboards can be relatively unstructured, using a scorecard requires adherence to a methodology such as BSC, European Foundation for Quality Management, value-based management or Six Sigma. A popular methodology is the Kaplan and Norton balanced scorecard, which requires that an organisation balances the financial perspectives of performance with non-financial perspectives for organisational learning, customers and internal business processes.

In summary, the dashboard tells us what is happening, and, by linking that dashboard to a BI tool that supports a drill down, we can explore why it happened. In contrast, the scorecard provides a view of how well the organisation is doing against either strategic or departmental targets, and should some corrective action be necessary, the scorecard will show whether or not the corrective action was effective.

Portals

It's important not to confuse dashboards and scorecards with portals - another area in which visualisation skills are key. The critical role of the portal is to provide a common access point for interaction with operational and analytical applications - including dashboards and scorecards.

In addition, the portal will provide access to content that is relevant to the user (that content can be both internal and external to the enterprise). The other key role of the portal is to provide access to and be a repository for collaboration programmes that are being undertaken.

Rich internet applications

Talking of portals and web-based applications gets us to that second driver of visualisation - rich internet applications (RIA). They provide a browser-based interface that surpasses traditional desktop functionality and performance. The critical technologies for delivering RIA are Ajax, Flash, Flex, Silverlight and Laslo.

Internet-based applications are becoming both mission-critical, and much more complex. At the same time, users expect the richness of the traditional GUI and look for it across multiple delivery devices.

A gap exists between the traditional fat and thin client models and established technology is failing to meet emerging business requirements. The traditional fat-client GUI, while supporting a rich user experience look and feel, lacks the ability to support consumer and on-demand corporate deployments. The traditional web model has extraordinary reach, but lacks the rich user experience. This is the gap that RIA addresses.

So what?

So what is the impact of the demand for visualisation skills, and how should you address it? That won't be simple; you can hardly send a few of your IT professionals off to a visualisation course as it’s a subject typically embedded in other subjects.

And how will you address the personal skills issue as well? Perhaps this is one of the areas in which you - or one of your staff that have been involved in course development - could assist.

There's some information you need first of all:

  • What is your organisation's experience of BI applications; are they being developed; are they just for specialists or is the application becoming pervasive, and what is the users' reaction to them?
  • What is your organisation's experience of developing web 2.0 applications; are the web applications becoming mission-critical, and does the concept of RIA figure prominently in the IT function’s perception of web 2.0?
  • What visualisation skills exist among IT professionals at the moment; is this an area that is insourced or outsourced; are there benefits in developing in-house skills?
  • What experience do you have within the L&D function on visualisation and could that experience be useful if positioned in a wider context?
  • How successful has the experience of collaboration and cross-functional teams been within the organisation and what 'lessons learned' have come out of previous experience?

Use those five questions as a catalyst - they're your starter. But, once you have those answers, you'll be well positioned to structure a project that will enable you to demonstrate the value of collective intelligence within the organisation.

November 2007