Big Data // Big Data Analytics
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2/10/2014
09:06 AM
Shane O'Neill
Shane O'Neill
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Big Data Is Nothing If Not Visual

"The Visual Organization" author Phil Simon discusses data visualization tools and their power to change business conversations.

about their users and customers via dataviz. Why? At a high level, they get it. Data matters more than ever, and it's easiest to act on what you can see.

The book contains a wide array of case studies. I specifically chose a tech behemoth in Netflix, a startup (social polling platform Wedgies), and an academic institution, the University of Texas system. I wanted to demonstrate that the notion of a visual organization isn't confined to billion-dollar enterprises.

[Click here to see a video of how AutoDesk used dataviz tools to show how the company's structure has changed over the years.]

That's the good news. On the other hand, laggards and general resistance are everywhere. There are far too many small, mid-sized, and large organizations that ignore or minimize the potential impact of data.

IW: In most cases, the C-suite isn't going to initiate the deployment of dataviz tools. Should a small team pitch a dataviz strategy to senior leadership to get the ball rolling?

PS: Well, that's one option, but employees at visual organizations tend not to ask for permission. The rise of cloud-based, SaaS, and open-source software collectively mean that a top-down deployment process is no longer required. This is not 1998. Drawn-out RFI and RFP processes lead to missed opportunities.

While it's important to follow internal governance rules, waiting a year or more to deploy a new dataviz tool can cost a business dearly. Bottom-up approaches can quickly generate results and excitement throughout the company.

IW: So it does not have to start with the IT department?

PS: Absolutely not. I believe that the lines of business should "own" their data.

IW: You begin the book with the story of the dataviz vendor Tableau's IPO. Smaller vendors are developing powerful dataviz tools, but Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM are in the dataviz game too. What are the pros and cons of going with a large vendor?

PS: Well, there's something to be said for one-stop shopping. All else being equal, it shouldn't be too hard to get a single vendor's products to talk to each other, although I've seen completely disparate systems and applications stitched together in my years as a consultant.

Adding a new vendor into the equation means signing new contracts, incurring risk, developing new relationships, and (potentially) fulfilling new integration requirements.

However, large vendors like Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM have their hands in many pots. It doesn't mean that they make "bad" dataviz products. It only means that their priorities aren't concentrated on one area. Best-of-breed vendors, however, have but one mission: To improve the functionality of their tools.

IW: Will we see more visual organizations over the next five years?

PS: Yes. Big data isn't going anywhere and visualizing data helps organizations and their employees make sense of a mass of data. More case studies will appear. In this sense, it's just another point on the technology adoption lifecycle.

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Shane O'Neill is Managing Editor for InformationWeek. Prior to joining InformationWeek, he served in various roles at CIO.com, most notably as assistant managing editor and senior writer covering Microsoft. He has also been an editor and writer at eWeek and TechTarget. ... View Full Bio

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Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 1:11:23 PM
The Visual Organization
Does your company still rely on Excel for data analytics? Would data visualization tools open up conversations between business groups and help the company make better decisions? Share your thoughts below, whether you're using dataviz or not.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 3:59:34 PM
Should designers be part of the team?
I'm wondering if there is a need for someone to be on the team who thinks about making these visualizations look good and communicate clearly, as opposed to relying on software tools to spit out meaningful visualizations.
_philsimon
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_philsimon,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/10/2014 | 4:48:08 PM
Re: Should designers be part of the team?
Thanks for the comment, David. Designers are still important and you'll never hear me say otherwise. I argue in the book, however, that traditional silos and roles are giving way to hybrid employees. In many cases, new tools no longer require dedicated personnel with decades of expertise. 
J_Brandt
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J_Brandt,
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2014 | 1:22:24 PM
Re: Should designers be part of the team?
David, I'd have to agree that having someone on the team with that background would be a huge plus.
HM
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HM,
User Rank: Strategist
2/11/2014 | 4:53:01 PM
HPCC Systems
Shane, great article. With the explosion of big data, companies are faced with data challenges in three different areas. First, you know the type of results you want from your data but it's computationally difficult to obtain. Second, you know the questions to ask but struggle with the answers and need to do data mining to help find those answers. And third is in the area of data exploration where you need to reveal the unknowns and look through the data for patterns and hidden relationships. The open source HPCC Systems big data processing platform can help companies with these challenges by deriving insights from massive data sets quick and simple. Designed by data scientists, it is a complete integrated solution from data ingestion and data processing to data delivery. Their built-in Machine Learning Library and Matrix processing algorithms can assist with business intelligence and predictive analytics. More at http://hpccsystems.com
 
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
2/12/2014 | 11:13:54 AM
Re: The Visual Organization
This reminds me of an earlier conversation about the potential induction of creative folks into the data scientist roles.  Reason being, in order to make a lot of the meaningful correlations between the data points, organizations might want to look at more creative types who can find less obvious connections between data.  That being said, having a visual representation of data might make more sense since these folks, speaking as a creative, would probably have an easier time visually identifying connections than staring at databases.  After all, not too many creative folks in the data modelling field. Ofcourse, you could argue about why a good chunk of the IT folks out there are musicians...
BRIAN_CIAMPA
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BRIAN_CIAMPA,
User Rank: Strategist
2/18/2014 | 7:55:24 AM
Non-Visual Data Worth Anything?
Have we reached a point yet in which it is unacceptable to display data to a C-level individual in a non-visual way?
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
2/18/2014 | 1:39:23 PM
Re: Non-Visual Data Worth Anything?
I'm not sure about that -- these folks were raised on Excel spreadsheets -- but I do think we will get there. Consider the graphical representations we get of personal data these days, in everything from banking to fitness. C-level execs should expect more of business data presentation.
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