When I joined ClicData five years ago, companies of all sizes had been preaching the gospel of the power of data for years. While many companies had adopted systems such as SAP Business Objects and SQL Reporting Services as their go-to tools to make sense of their data, Excel had been offering business users the flexibility of reporting. And the seemingly simple question that everyone wanted to answer was: What story do the numbers tell me about my business?
I was enthusiastic about joining ClicData; it was and is a Business Intelligence software vendor whose clear vision has been to provide the power of cloud-based Business Intelligence to every business user. We were determined to realize this lofty goal and embark on a journey to empower users. Over the last five years, I have worked with organizations from numerous sectors—including health care, retail, production, and hospitality—everything from small to large enterprises. As I engaged with them, I noticed a common theme: that everyone was so focused on understanding their data that they were limiting themselves to a reactive perspective and missing the advantages of a more proactive viewpoint.
Start with the right questions
For example, when building BI dashboards and using data visualization, one of the most common questions people were seeking answers for was:
“How many of my customers have bought product A?”
But a much more productive question to ask would be:
“How will I increase my sales for product A?”
I can’t blame business users for asking reactive questions and creating visualizations based on a misleading perspective. Our pasts have influenced our intuition and our way of approaching business problems. As students, many of us were asked, “How much did you score on your exams?” A Raptors fan might get asked, “How many games did the Raptors win this season?” Even questions that are not necessarily statistical in nature are often asked using a past-leaning perspective, such as, “How was your experience last summer break?”
When it comes to non-statistical questions or descriptive questions based on our experiences, it makes complete sense to ask reactive questions. But, when it comes to operating businesses on a daily basis, only rarely will you improve your operations if your focus is simply on trying to understand if you hit your budget goals or not.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that the answer is to look to the future and think about the next goal and next action. My point is that having a proactive approach is highly beneficial whenever you are assessing reports, reading data, and most importantly, identifying the KPIs that matter most for your business.
Learn from the past, understand your present, but question your future
While consulting with clients on projects, I would frequently observe people asking questions like, “What happened?” instead of asking, “Why did this happen?” Asking “Why” is a powerful tool and can help organizations employ an unbiased approach to unravel the insights from their data.
For example, consider a business that’s running an e-commerce website that’s exploring ways to create dashboards so their regional sales managers can better understand the performance of their sales reps. With that information at hand, they can make better decisions to run their daily operations. I want to point out that many decision-makers might think the concern ends with the ability to glean rep performance. But they would be missing the impact of asking the question: “What next?”
By analyzing the case of this e-commerce client, I have outlined some of the common pitfalls that I observed through my conversations with them. I list the questions that are usually asked while designing a dashboard, followed by a description of the better questions to be asking. I also provide suggestions for how those questions might be implemented with a visualization tool, as well as what you can expect to achieve by asking them. Remember, the goal is to create value for your business.
In summary, I recommend having a forward-looking outlook while you design your dashboards. Don’t neglect your past performance; it is essential and crucial for many aspects of the business. However, as you glance at the past, also ask yourself, “What is the end goal? How can my data help me make tomorrow’s decision?”Dashboard-building is an art, and storytelling is trendy, but do so while focusing on what matters most.