I was having a conversation a couple weeks ago with a client. First let me explain the client environment. This was an IT executive at a fairly large consumer products manufacturer with multiple manufacturing and distribution locations. They operate at least 3 differing systems (accounting/backoffice, manufacturing, warehouse/logistics) on 2 different server platforms, and like many, they have been doing this electronically for decades now. So they have years worth of data stored on 3 physical server stacks using 2 different operating systems created from at least 3 different sources.
We were talking about the value of the data resource to the organization. Some companies value the data resource and understand its importance to the enterprise. Some place little to no value on it other than to transact the latest business and report current financial results. Many companies fall into the category of knowing value is there, but don’t really understand how to leverage it. This third case was the basis of our conversation. His question was along the lines of, “How do we take all that data that we have been accumulating and understand what’s there, what has value and what doesn’t? How do we leverage the information in the form of trends and occurrences in the data that will allow us to make better business decisions? How do we get past the typical flood of management reports and dashboards that tell us how we’re doing and move to having the data resource tell us what we should be doing?”
My answer, Data Storytelling. Storytelling allows you to uncover the insight buried in your data, taking that potential value and translating that into leverage for the business. Storytelling gives you the ability to extract value from data, visualize the data in the form of insights and then communicate that to those who can us it to make informed business decisions. We’ve all heard the numbers regarding the ever increasing amount of data we as a society or civilization are creating. As IT professionals all we have to do is look at the ever increasing requirements for storage within our own walls – more drives, more SAN, more cloud….. The numbers in that storage, that data, have a story to tell.
Data Storytelling is a structured process of communicating the insights hidden in the data and involves three components, the data itself, visuals, and a narrative (or the story itself). When a narrative is combined with the data it helps to explain what’s happening. When visuals are applied to data, they help enlighten those that need to make decisions. When the narrative and visuals are combined they will engage the decision makers. An engaged decision maker can affect change.
“Data are just summaries of thousands of stories – tell a few of those stories to help make the data meaningful” Chip and Dan Heath
At it’s core, Data Storytelling includes the tools to analyze and visualize trends and results, and the ability to effectively communicate those to people that care. The use of Storytelling has proven to make a point or concept easier to understand and the ideas and information from a story can connect emotionally with a reader. We have an example of Storytelling created by Larry Stegman from our staff. Trying to keep things light, fun, and timely, Larry created a series of three blog posts in March that he used to help analyze or tell a story about the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Now, we all know that there’s no perfect system to creating a winning tournament bracket, but Larry was able to access a ream of historical NCAA data (think big data – external data source) and use that to tell a story of past tournaments, visualize that story and make decisions.
In his first blog post Lessons in Creating the Perfect NCAA Bracket, Larry explains that, “some results just ask for more data.” This is the start of his exploration to find what stories are hidden in the data he has access to. He spends time applying visualization tools to the data he has, generating new insights that result in additional visuals.
In the second blog post in the series, Visualizing the History of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, he digs deeper into the data he has, asking more insightful questions based on his previous results. Hidden gems of knowledge show up in the form of visuals that show results for conference match-ups and seeding results that would not show up by looking at a series of numbers on a page. If you have followed the tournament over the years you know what the term “Cinderella” team means. Larry explores a new term “Stepsister” teams, a storyline he sees being revealed by his storytelling process.
Larry takes the humbling approach to analyzing the results of the first two rounds of the tournament in his third blog post. What he’s accomplishing is testing the results of actual activity against the storyline he had created. Basketball is probably less predictive than most business situations (which can make this humbling) but the results are more data. Allowing a more accurate story in the future.
Bringing this back to our client, he has data. He has a management team that wants to make the most informed decisions possible. He has people in his organization that know the business and industry. What he lacks are the tools and experience to begin the storytelling process. That’s where we can help. If you would like to discuss the story you can tell with your data resource, give me a call.
Michael Miller, President, Arbor Solutions, Inc.