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Why the best data visualization tools empower end users

Data visualization applications provide so much value to business because they enable everyday employees to accomplish tasks and find insights that were previously available to only a small number of end users.

Although the functions and capabilities found in most of today's data visualization tools may not always seem revolutionary, these applications provide such unique value to companies because they enable everyday employees to accomplish tasks and uncover insights that were previously available to only a small number of expert analysts, business intelligence expert Bill Franks wrote in a recent blog post for the Harvard Business Review.

Although data visualizations such as graphs and charts are necessarily blockbuster breakthroughs, they do enable business leaders to quickly analyze information and glean insights from raw data. This functionality is not revolutionary, but Franks wrote that the spread of these analysis tools is especially noteworthy.

Thanks to this trend, more end users within a company can access information and obtain meaningful insights, according to Franks. In this fashion, business intelligence is democratizes, as now the masses can make smart decisions that ensure every aspect of an organization is operating intelligently.

"Visualization tools allow users to explore, summarize, and visualize data in the way they see fit as opposed to the way someone else saw fit to allow them," he wrote. "By having the flexibility to join different data sources as desired, view patterns on the fly, and iterate, users can discover important insights and trends more easily and more rapidly."

The rising trend of self-service business intelligence
What Franks described is just one part of the growing movement know as self-service BI. ZDNet noted that companies are realizing high return on investments from business intelligence tools, which is spurring organizations everywhere to embark on initiatives to leverage their available data to make smarter and more actionable business decisions.

However, because many of these legacy BI tools required companies to have powerful on-site servers and data scientists, such initiatives were limited in scope. Thanks to many converging trends, today's IT departments are smaller and more heavily burdened than ever before. As a result, companies that wanted to get the most from their BI initiative had to look to new avenues and thus the self-service wave was born, according to ZDNet.

This shift has created an unintended consequence for organizations - employees throughout the company have the tools available to make their jobs easier and their decisions smarter. Since traditional data initiatives were costly and cumbersome, businesses limited their scope to only a small number of tasks and goals. However, the news source said that because BI tools have become so widespread, every business process can be analyzed and done more intelligently.

"[As such,] it can only be a good thing to have more decision-making capability embedded in the lines of business," James Foster, general manager of Southeast Asia for Solutions OnDemand and high-performance computing at SAS, told ZDNet. "Plus, the shift to self-service also has a positive effect on IT, freeing them to think more strategically and focus on value-added activities for the company rather than just 'keeping the lights on'."

Overcoming self-service BI's potential pitfalls
Although the self-service BI trend has yielded many benefits, such efforts are prone to fail if improperly implemented, the news outlet reported. For example, although end user reporting tools are easier to use than legacy systems, employees still need a little training on how to maximize the technology's value. In addition, company executives should be sure to have total control over all the information, as a proliferation of end points increases an organization's risk of losing mission critical data for good.

However, according to Franks, these hurdles are just part of the learning curve. As with any new initiative, a company may experience some initial pains during the transition. However, with the right tools and company culture in place, the end result will be well worth the investment.

"[I]t'd be a mistake to make those tools available only to those users with advanced data skills," he wrote. "Using the tools should help even non-numerate users gain greater comfort with the data (one hopes) and along with that comes growing ability to draw increasingly sophisticated insights. And that's when the ... investments really start to pay off."

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