Food for thought

The scientific community recently took the decision that a kilogram can no longer be a kilogram. Given their track record of declaring that a metre isn’t a metre and a second isn’t a second this shouldn’t come as much of a shock.

Since 1889 the kilogram has been measured by means of a standard block of metal. Trouble is, a block of metal gets the occasional tiny scratch, or a layer of dirt added from a scientist’s sweaty palm and so the weight fluctuates. Scientists (being scientists) need an accuracy level of 30 parts in a billion and so the lump of metal is being replaced by a fixed value from nature (as was done for the metre and the second).

30 parts per billion equates to an accuracy per unit of 0.00000003. A very small number indeed. One that needs a very wide Excel column or a large amount of real estate on a dashboard to display.

If you’ve worked within the dark realms of BI for more than a week, you’ll have encountered something like the table below.

Detailed Tables with detailed values for analysis

If you’re a veteran of a month or more you’ve likely been asked to recreate an identical version of this Excel based wonder in a visualisation tool of the client’s choice.

Much like scientists, there are armies of Excel users out there that will swear on pain of death that they have to see every exact number all of the time. Occasionally they’ll go rogue and build a 3-D bar graph to paste into PowerPoint, but mostly it’s about the numbers.

This kind of data best illustrates what a modern visualisation tool brings to the table over and above “old school BI” which has (perhaps unfairly) become the catch-all du jour for canned, list reporting.

With the exception of the Kardashians and Justin Bieber there’s a time and a place for everything. A financial statement for a company report has to show the numbers, but what if you simply want to get a sense of how your sales categories stack up against each other for the last complete month?

Bar chart illustrating sales by category

Nice, but how did our categories track against target?

Bar chart illustrating sales by category and actual vs target

Hmm…before I fire Jeff in our Things division, is the picture the same for the current month to date? And where do we stand against our 75% and 90% of target bands?

Bar chart illustrating sales by category with MTD vs target

Maybe some longer term trends – say six months – will paint a different picture…?

Line chart analysis displaying trends over time

That’s all well and good but could we download a corporate background from a fantastic image library site like into a leading visualisation tool and then throw a few charts over the top of it so that it’ll look snazzy in PowerPoint when I fire Jeff in the board meeting?

Well designed, eye-catching visuals facilitate smarter, faster business decisions.

The point to note here is that none of the visuals pay any attention to detail when it comes to displaying numbers. We don’t need to compare 14120367853 with 9122864578 in order to see that Widgets are doing better than Things, and we certainly don’t need 30 parts in a billion precision to decide that Jeff had better update his LinkedIn profile.

Traditional BI list reports bring a sense of comfort and structure to the detail driven consumers. Well-designed, eye-catching visuals facilitate smarter, faster business decisions. Both remain relevant and both ultimately rely on the data foundation upon which they are constructed.

So sweat the small stuff only when you need to. Or, better still, choose a partner to inspire and perspire in the correct doses.

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Post written by Nik Eveleigh, Principal BI Consultant, Synergy.

Other articles in this series:
Making Healthy Data Choices – published September 2018
A helping hand(le) for your data – published October 2018
All roads (eventually) lead to data – published November 2018
The 12 Vizzies of Christmas – published December 2018