How to foster an environment where data visualization can thrive.
Data is growing like mad. Internet traffic alone will reach 400 exabytes per month by 2022.1 Trends such as edge computing and the Internet of Things mean both creation of and demand for data are only accelerating.
Many companies say they want to be data-driven: turning the tidal wave of data into fuel for making decisions. To get there, organizations certainly need data specialists, from architects to analysts. But those professionals are in high demand—for example, the World Economic Forum’s 2020 jobs report listed data analyst as one of the fastest growing jobs in the world.2 That means organizations can’t just rely on specialists. They need to build a data-literate workforce, with employees in all departments and disciplines who are comfortable and skilled at working with data.
But there’s a key element in a data-driven culture that at times is overlooked or left to a few specialized professionals: data visualization.
Experts say data visualization skills can and should be strengthened among more employees. Business leaders who invest time and money encouraging more data visualization can reap faster and more informed decision-making across their organization.
How Data Visualization Makes an Organization Faster and Smarter
A visualization can be as simple as a line graph or far more complex. Visualizations are particularly useful for making clear the relationship between variables, showing changes over time, and finding patterns in very large data sets.
Some employees and some decisions need only the simpler versions. But in a ruthlessly demanding business environment, is it worth investing in a workforce with a widespread ability to do better visualizations?
Eva Murray, Snowflake’s Senior Evangelist for EMEA, wants to turn that question on its head.
“Why wouldn’t we? And how could we afford not to? ” Murray said. “The alternatives to data visualization are tables of numbers, wallpapers of numbers, Excel spreadsheets full of numbers.” Forensic accountants, actuaries, and financial experts may revel in those tools and format. Other workers, though, can actually consume and consider more data when it’s presented in friendlier (visual) formats.
“The main purpose of a data visualization is to reduce the amount of time and effort and brain power it takes to conclude something from information,” said Murray.
“And it also makes numbers a lot less scary. If you present someone with a big spreadsheet or a cross table of numbers, they’ll be intimidated,” Murray noted. If you give them a data visualization, on the other hand, it may capture their imagination.
Grabbing attention is one of the primary points of embodying data in visuals and stories. Why? Because these activities humanize data.
How Can a Company Create an Environment Where Data Visualization Thrives?
First, it has to come from the top down. By actively promoting the use of visuals, not only does leadership influence a needed culture change that pushes for everyone to improve their data literacy but, as Gartner explains, they also increase the quality of business decisions all along the chain.3
In fact, in an article for Forester titled “Data Literacy Matters — Do We Have To Spell It Out?!” Snowflake’s Principal Data Strategist, Jennifer Belissent, wrote “On average, only 48.3% of decisions are made based on quantitative information and analysis.”4
So recognizing that data is important, and developing the ability to recognize it for what it is, is an elemental first step in driving your company forward into a place where employees are comfortable with data.
Additionally, data governance and data quality are areas where leadership can provide championship. As Brent Dykes, Senior Director of Insights and Data Storytelling at Blast Analytics, said in a Q&A interview with QA2L, “Data quality is a shared responsibility and sometimes in organizations it may be portrayed as the responsibility of the analytics team or the data team. However, in many cases, business teams can play an important role in detecting anomalies…Data is a valuable asset and responsibility for the quality of the data should be shared.”5
Grass-roots initiatives can also provide great value. At Chemonics, for example, employees with the skills or the interest in data visualization were encouraged to find and assist one another, as outlined in a step-by-step guide for a series called Days of Data.6
Second, train employees or have them trained. Data visualization is a specific process and demands building specific skills. Neither a designer nor a data analyst necessarily has the talent and know-how to create top-shelf visualizations. You can hire consultants to help out on projects, but smart organizations also ask those providers to assist in training employees.
“I think if a company has recognized the need to do more with data, and has decided data is going to be part of their processes, they should definitely build the capabilities in-house,” said Murray.
“Once employees are comfortable with consuming, interpreting, and working with data, they’ll then need to learn how to communicate insights effectively,” Dykes added. “Training can be beneficial to help close the skill gap throughout the organization. Identify some people who can evangelize the importance of data storytelling, demonstrate how it’s done, and support people within the organization who want to tell stories with their data.”
This doesn’t mean that every employee is going to have or need a Tableau license. Some will use advanced tools, and others may be able to rely on simpler presentations, but in whatever form, storytelling will often mean some form of visualization.
Finally, consider requiring data visualization for business pitches. Organizational debate and persuasion takes many forms, from simple email exchanges to full-blown PowerPoint presentations with supporting documents. One way to encourage visualization is to require it in more-formal settings.
For example, an organization could make it understood that any new product pitch, or any major investment, is unlikely to be approved without a data visualization. Market size, market trends, geographic demand, competitive comparisons—these opportunities are typically rich with data that can help support decision-making.
It’s important to note that requirements won’t yield productive results without coaching and examples.
“Oftentimes people don’t know what visualization is or what they can do with it, but when they see examples of it, it often helps them to get the gears in their own mind flowing as to how something similar could be used to support their needs,” said Anya A’Hearn, Managing Director at DataBlick.
Expecting data visualization from your employees will help to emphasize that yours is, or will be, a data-driven culture.
Data will not stop growing
There are currently 31 billion devices connected to the internet, according to the analytics firm IHS Markit. Most of those devices are gathering data. It is unlikely we will cross a line after which we see less data being gathered by fewer machines.
Data literacy is foundational in this world: “If you want to build this skill set within your organization, you start by ensuring your employees are as data literate as possible,” said Dykes. Those companies that do work to increase data literacy, use visualization as a tool for decision-making, create a culture in which data is recognized as an asset, and create, hire, and value employees who know how to master that data—instead of being mastered by it—are going to win out over those that do not.
Creating a data-driven culture is less demanding than it is freeing.
Additional Data Visualization Inspiration and Resources
- Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story by Nancy Duarte
- #MakeoverMonday: Improving How We Visualize and Analyze Data, One Chart at a Time by Andy Kriebel and Eva Murray