I spent a fascinating afternoon yesterday hearing Alan Smith OBE, (Data Visualisation Editor of the FT) and Thomas Clever (of Clever.Franke) seeking to answer the question: “What can Data Visualisation do?” with the help of Andy Kirk (of Visualising Data).
According to Smith the visual medium excels at showing us the unexpected and in doing so prompts yet more “Why?” questions. Data journalists care about how telling the unexpected story can produce deeper understanding. Smith showed two visualisations of gender inequality in primary education using the same data from Unesco. One told a powerful story about the Asia Pacific countries where girls and boys are disadvantaged and the other had hidden that story simply by a poor choice of chart type.
“Data visualisation is dead!”
In his talk Clever made the controversial claim that “Data visualisation is dead!” to illustrate how the visual exploration process is being bypassed by prescriptive decision-making. This was exemplified by IFTTT which uses ‘If, then’ causal logic to make decisions about, for example, dimming the lights in your house. Clever’s case is that the data upon which decisions are made are being increasingly obscured by algorithms, suppressing visual understanding and the means to challenge their inferences.
Combined, these two perspectives – the unexpected ‘Why?’ and ‘If, then’ causality – express my ideas about strategic scorecards in the IT organisations and growth businesses I work with.
The story that scorecards tell is whether improvement towards strategic goals is working or that something unexpected is going on. They use simple summaries and exceptions to communicate the message that a decision to act is needed. Their job is to prompt the ‘Why?’ question which triggers a decision to invest in more detailed, perhaps more visual exploration.
Strategic scorecards help us to see whether the ‘If then’ thinking of the strategy itself is working; they validate its causal hypothesis. They can also then tell us when to react to a signal and trigger some prescribed response and when to ignore random noise. This doesn’t need elaborate visualisation either, but it does need statistical techniques such as XmR charts.
A strategic scorecard should help us to see the unexpected and understand causal influences in order to respond with good decisions which keep the strategy on track. So yes, data visualisation can tell the story of strategy, but only if it doesn’t get in the way of the critical decision requirements.