What Lego can teach us about implementing Business Analytics

Lego is amazing. Lego is a smart toy. It teaches us and our kids many things. Lego can especially teach us a fundamental insight that is true for many areas of our lives: We love doing those things that we are good at. And this is true for Business Analytics, too.

START SMALL

Success with a small project

Last year my twin boys wanted to build a fairly large space ship. They were really excited but that excitement ended up in a major disappointment: the project was too difficult for them. They lacked some critical skills. They made a bunch of mistakes and they soon lost patience due to a lack of visible progress. My wife and I tried coaching them. But we finally decided to shift their focus on a few smaller projects that they could finish in less than 10-15 minutes. They loved these projects. And they quickly learned new skills and they completed their objects faster and faster. As a result, the complexity of their projects rapidly increased and they got more and more creative. Today, they are able to build fairly large and complex sets and they need very little help from us. Most importantly, they love Legos as it gives them confidence and they are seeing personal success. When they tried conquering complexity too early, they easily got frustrated and Legos ended up not being their favorite toy for a while.

BIG BANG

Over the past few years, you and I have seen many companies fail with their software implementations. There was this infamous word Big Bang and it usually stood for failure. Companies decided to execute long and massive projects. The associated teams ran into plenty of dead-ends, they made mistakes, they had to compromise and they got really frustrated. Consulting cost often exploded. Business users were getting impatient and project teams decided to counter-act that with change management efforts. As a result, many companies literally hate the tools that they spent years implementing. Such a shame.

START SMALL AND GROW BIG

Experience allows us to successfully execute bigger and more complicated projects

When we get started with business analytics we should not attempt to do these large projects. It is just like with Legos: we have to develop new skills and we have to find out what works and what doesn’t. We also have to build the excitement. Small projects allow us to learn and to quickly collect success. The more we learn, the more confident we get. While we might need some consulting help in the beginning we can soon rely on our own skills. That significantly increases the motivation of all stakeholders. You will soon find that people are asking for projects instead of you promoting them. And before you know it you can apply the knowledge and skills to the bigger and more complex projects. And those projects will be successful. Isn’t that a better approach?

My advice to you: Think Lego. Start small and grow big.

 

Is data valueable?

“How can data be so valuable?” That is the provocative question a friend asked me a few days ago. We had a good discussion about life, work and other fun things. My friend is an artist, by the way. Not a business person. And that created a bit of a challenge: how do you best explain the value of data in layman’s terms? Well, I ended up telling him a story that happened to me a few days before.

THE FREQUENT TRAVELER

It had been a long week. Four cities in four countries in four days. It was right around 11pm when I got to the hotel. All I wanted to do was sleep and forget everything about that day. It had been a tough day. Endless meetings, missed flights. In other words: I felt like reaching for the reset button. But things changed. At the hotel, I was greeted by a friendly front desk manager. He commented on the fact that I must be pretty tired (obvious observation – it was 11pm). We had a quick chat, he wanted to know where I came from. And without me really noticing he mentioned that he really admired frequent travelers like myself (huh? How did he know). He continued: “We are thankful for people like you. It is because of you that we are in business.” “Wow“, he said. “You must be one of our top customers. The are very few people that check in here that have spent as many nights in our hotels as you have.” He then gave me a nice upgrade to a fantastic room with great views. How do you think that made me feel? Well, it made a big difference and that is why I am so loyal to this hotel chain. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me.

THE DATA IMPACT

Even a simple number can tell a great story

You are probably wondering where the connection with data is? Very simple: the hotel chain obviously has the data about all my stays in their systems. A very simple number. Not some fancy set of variances or complex data. Just a simple double-digit number for any given year. A simple SELECT sum(NIGHTS) from CUSTOMERS; Nothing more. But this business encourages its employees to look up this number and to actively use it to make their customers feel appreciated and special. That’s what the front-desk manager did. And guess what: This simple number allows the hotel to communicate three important things:

– We do know how much time and money YOU spend here
– We appreciate YOUR business
– We care about YOU

DATA IS THE NEW OIL

If a simple double-digit number can empower an employee to make a difference, think about the potential that lies in your ocean of data. What could you do with a few simple numbers to turn your customers and business partners into true fans? I believe we have a huge opportunity on our hands. As we continue to collect more and more valuable data we need to get started and continue to refine this data into real insights. And we have only scratched the surface so far. Why don’t you take a few minutes today to think about a single thing you could do with your data? Are there unexplored opportunities? What could you do today to make a difference?

The analytics of cycling

Where is my auto-pilot? The Dolomites are stunning.

A few months ago, I posted an article about analytics in cycling. This post still remains one of the most popular posts on my blog. Thanks for all the great comments, feedback and questions. Many of you wanted to find out more. Here is a quick report of how technology helps improve cycling performance. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to ride the famous Alpe di Siusi climb in the Dolomites. It is a super nice and friendly climb: breathtaking landscape and not too long. It is fairly steep (average of 8.5%) but it is steady. In other words: a perfect opportunity to fit a short but challenging ride into a constrained schedule.

GADGET ALERT

High Tech in the hub: My Saris Cycleops Powermeter

A few years ago, powermeters became an affordable training tool for amateur riders like me. Smart technology is packed into either the bike cranks or the hub of a cycle and it measures a lot of data: power output, cadence, speed, torque, etc.. The data is sent to my Garmin Edge 705 cycling computer via ANT+ (similar to bluetooth) where it is combined with further GPS and altitude data. Following each ride, I download the data into a smart software called WKO+. This is where I can analyze each ride and learn a ton of stuff about myself.

PREPARATION

Blue line: fitness, pink line current training load, yellow line: freshness

Before leaving the house, I checked my performance chart in WKO+. This chart literally calculates and predicts my fitness using smart algorithms. The blue line for example shows my fitness ramp up. You can see that I had a rough spring: I was injured and could do not much until March. The yellow line indicates my ‘freshness’: a value below zero indicates that my legs are likely to feel heavy. A positive value indicates that I should have fresh legs. These algorithms work amazingly well and it really helps me put a solid training schedule together. For Saturday, I can see that I should have somewhat fresh legs (value is around +8). Perfect timing!

ON THE BIKE

An amazing piece of technology: The Garmin Edge 705

The climb went pretty well. Recent tests in training sessions have shown me that I am starting to get back in shape: I can easily sustain around 260w for about an hour. Wattage higher than 280 is likely to cause me some trouble (I experienced light cramps in a training session a few weeks ago). That information helps me with pacing. The climbs in Italy are pretty steep and it is easy to get carried away and push too hard. But after a few minutes I realized that the recent training efforts have indeed helped me improve and so I settled into a higher than normal pace. And this strategy worked out pretty well: I felt great and strong throughout the entire climb. I did have to hold back a little as it was getting extremely hot and I still had another climb across Passo Pinei.

OFF THE BIKE

Back home in Munich, I downloaded the ride into the software. How did I do? First, I take a look at my power distribution. A quick report shows me how much time I spent in different calculated training zones. The two zones on the right are the ones that really, really hurt. This is where your legs & lungs are screaming in pain. Hmm…Looks like I had a good day based on that. It seems that I have made some good progress. Time to increase the overall training intensity?

Time spent in different training zones

Let’s take a look at the detailed ride. The orange line shows the altitude profile. You can see that there were two different climbs. The other curves show the important stuff: power output (yellow), pedal cadence (green), speed (blue). Looks wild, doesn’t it?

Orange linge: altitude, yellow line: power output, green line: pedal cadence

But I am interested in my climbing performance. So let me zoom in on the Alpe di Siusi climb. To make it easier to analyze the data, I am drawing a few lines in here: the yellow dotted line shows my current threshold power (the power that I can produce for about one hour without falling off my bike in exhaustion) along with my favorite cadence zone (anything below 60 rpms does not feel good…). Aha. Looks like I had a good ride. Training is paying off indeed. I consistently rode above my estimated threshold and even had lot’s of energy to spare at the end of the climb (look at the yellow peak). Awesome.

The Alpe Suisi climb

The software also calculates several important and helpful KPIs. I won’t go into the details, but these KPIs help me further manage my training schedule. One easy example is Kilojoules:  I created energy worth 732 KJs (the equivalent of two Snickers!). That information is really helpful on longer training rides: it helps you manage food intake.

ANALYTICS IS FUN

Perfect. Despite not having much time, I managed to get a solid ride in. The powermeter helped me pace and push myself. The post-ride analysis showed that I need to adjust my training schedule: time for higher intensity workouts. Also, I will have more time to ride in the Alps over the next few weeks and will use this knowledge to ride some of the longer and harder passes.

It’s fun to ride this way: The analytics have allowed me to learn a lot about myself. I ride more consistently now. And I perform much better on climbs. It feels awesome when you have some energy left in the tank at the end of a climb: this time I raced a local delivery truck. Italians love cycling and the two guys in the car cheered me on while pushing the gas pedal a bit more. The sun was shining, the clouds opened up on amazing view and I felt like I could fly right in that moment.

Data + Powerpoint = Wasted Time?

Presenting data can confuse people

Let me be blunt and honest: Too many presentations and their accompanying slide decks absolutely suck. And they especially suck when it comes to displaying and discussing data. Over the past few years, I have sat through days- worth of boring and utterly useless presentations. Such a waste! And there was so much potential: great data points and valuable information. But all this was well hidden behind complex and confusing charts. And believe it or not: that is a problem for business analytics.

THE PRESENTATION PARADOX

We spend so much time and money on implementing business analytics software. We create so many awesome reports and dashboards. There is so much potential. But way too many people take this valuable information and literally destroy it by using the trusted information to create useless and complex slides. Those slides are then presented in meetings where we try to sell ideas and we where try to make collective decisions.  But due to the convoluted slides (often coupled with poor communication skills) most messages fall flat on their face. I am tempted to say that the ‘last mile’ of business analytics is broken in these cases. It’s about time to fix that.

A CRITICAL SKILL

Dense & confusing - A typical slide?

Famous statistician and popular data guru Hans Rosling famously discussed this issue and compared the presentation of data to playing music: “…few people will appreciate the music if I just show them the notes. Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is. But often that’s how we present statistics: we just show the notes, we don’t play the music.” It is not enough to create a sophistcated data warehouse and some shiny reports. No, we need to make the data sing when we present it to other people an especially larger audiences. Developing solid presentation skills should therefore be high up on the priority list for anybody who works in the area of business analytics.

COMMUNICATION

There is a big difference between presenting insights to an audience (meetings, events, etc.) and analyzing data at our desks. Following a presentation requires a different level of energy and focus: it is a lot harder to follow in many cases. Our brain tries to juggle processing the information on the slides while listening to the speaker. We therefore need to make it easy for our audiences to receive the messages that we have found and prepared. The reports and charts that work at our desks do not necessarily work in a meeting room. We have to think differently. And that’s the disconnect we often see and that Hans Rosling aludes to: we do not think differently and simply show confusing details when we should be showing a clear story. We are short-selling our efforts and the impact of our insights in effect.

But there is good news. Learning how to present and how to tell an inspiring story using data in a presentation does not have to be complicated. In a few days from now I will share some tips & tricks that you can put to immediate use. Start thinking about those presentations! As always, I am curious to find out what your experiences with this are.

Vision with short-term thinking?

A few days ago, I took friends to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle. It’s close to my house – right around 100km and I have been there many times. But no matter how often I go there, I am always amazed by the stunning beauty of this monument. It is situated amidst rugged and snow-covered mountains. Awesome waterfalls, lush forrests and pristine lakes surround it. This is the stuff you read about in fairytales. The person who had this castle built truly had a stunning vision.

THE CASTLE BUSINESS

Fabled Bavarian King Ludwig II is known as the fairy-tale king. Born in 1845, he had a thing for beauty and architecture. And he had a big vision for himself and Bavaria. Under his reign, several amazing castles were built across Bavaria. Each one of these castles is highly unique and breath-taking: there are hidden grottos, magic dining-room tables, mirrored dance halls. And this is why millions of tourists from all over the world flock to these castles. They spend their precious money on tours, horse-carriage rides, souvenirs, food, drinks and hotels. It is safe to say that the economic contribution of these sights is enormous. Bavaria is benefiting from these castles in a big way. Vision accomplished!

LONG-TERM THINKING

This interesting story sparked a discussion amongst our group: What if the king had not followed his vision and played it safe? Would Bavaria be as popular and famous amongst tourists as it is today? What would have happened to these remote regions? Difficult to say, but we all agreed that things would be quite different. The king did run into serious resistance when he built his dream castles: while the general public supported him (the castle building created many jobs in the poor and remote regions), his ministers did not appreciate his personal spending habits and vision. The tried to block, hinder and deceive. But the king did not get bogged down in short-term thinking. He did not try to please his ministers. No, he poured his entire energy and fortunes into accomplishing his goals. The one thing we can safely say is that the King’s decisions ultimately led to the long-term well-being of Bavarian tourism.

TOO MUCH SHORT-TERM THINKING?

If we look at how many businesses are run these days, we have to observe that long-term thinking is quickly becoming a rare sight. We are so focused on making our next quarter’s numbers that we often loose sight of our vision. We cut expenses to make margins today but we sacrifice our ability to innovate which will hurt us in the long-term. We push customers to purchase our goods and services at times when we should be investing in long-term relationships. Investors are impatient and the day and age of the Internet seems to have taught many people that they should expect instantaneous gratification. Most of us know that this wrong and we often hear bloggers, analysts and managers complain about this periodic short-term thinking.

There is so much opportunity out there today. Much more opportunity than we have ever had. But we are often at risk of not fully leveraging the moment, by wanting to take it all today. Making a bold vision happen is very difficult if we are guided by short-term thinking. Shouldn’t we start shifting our focus back towards longer-term decision-making? Shouldn’t we strive to give up a little bit right here and right now to ensure that we are more successful in the future?  This is true for our companies and for our personal lives. Why don’t we reconnect with our personal vision and the vision of our company? Let’s make a change today and start building some castles!

FINAL REMARKS: One could argue that the King followed the wrong vision. He did spend a fortune on his projects and the value was not quite apparent at that time. Unfortunately, King Ludwig II. ultimately paid the highest price: His ministers were discomforted by his behavior and managed to have him declared insane. He was arrested at Neuschwanstein and admitted to a mental hospital at Lake Starnberg. His dead body was found the next day. He supposedly drowned in knee-deep water. He remains extremely popular in Bavaria and many people suspect that he was killed (he was known to be an exceptional swimmer).


Three lessons from the Flip story

Did you read the news the other day? Cisco is shutting down it’s Flip business unit.  I was a bit stunned. They had just bought them for around 590 million USD two years ago. The first Flip hit the markets less than four years ago (2007). And it was (and still is!) a huge success. In his book ‘The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs‘, Carmine Gallo states:

“The Flip changed everything. From 2008 to 2009, the video camcorder market grew by 35 percent. Flip products represented 90 percent of the growth.”

What is going on and what can we learn from this story?

THE FLIP

Simple enough! The Flip

In case you don’t know the Flip: it is the simplest camcorder available in the market. Its inventors took a highly complex product (that was probably collecting dust in the camera bags of millions of people) and made it super simple and easy to use. The Flip only has a few simple buttons and even a kid can learn how to use it in under a minute. The quality of the recordings is excellent for most situations. This simplicity lowered the barrier to shoot high quality video and people starting buying and actually using the Flip everywhere.  The Flip has been ranked as one of the bestselling items on Amazon for a long time. I am personally sad to see Cisco shut down this business. But I believe that there are three lessons we can all learn.

EMBRACE SPEED

This story is an excellent reminder of how quickly things can change these days. Product lifecycles are getting shorter and shorter. It supposedly took the radio over 38 years to reach 50 million users. The iPod did that in just about three years. A different camcorder I bought just four years ago now has a market value of roughly 5 Euros on eBay. Businesses need to embrace this speed. They need to be prepared to deal with this. Complacency is no longer viable. What worked yesterday doesn’t have to work tomorrow.

STAYING ALERT AND AGILE

Smart phones & tablets push out the Flip?

The other lesson of the Flip is that all businesses need to stay on their toes. Competition for products and services can come from completely unexpected areas other than our traditional competitors. The Flip for example was not threatened by the traditional camera manufacturers like Canon or Panasonic. No, the biggest competitor is/ was the smart phone. Why bother with a Flip if you can use your iPhone to record decent video? And the smart phones threaten some other product categories as well. Just like Cisco, the traditional GPS producers have been trying to figure out how to compete in this new smart phone world. Traditional media like TV stations and newspapers are now facing severe competition from Twitter, blogs etc.. In other words, we all need to stay agile and aware. We also need to encourage our organizations to keep innovating. If we stop doing that we will most likely loose out. If you look at some of the successful businesses these days, you will find that most of these are known for its agility and innovation: Apple, Gore, Google to just name a few.

DECISION MAKING

April 19th, 2011 - The Flip is still popular on Amazon.com

But the biggest lesson for me here is that all companies need to get better at decision making. It is easy to believe that the smart phones have pushed the Flip out. But as of today (April 19th, 2011) the Flip is still one of the top-selling products today. No, there must be more to it. The reason for Cisco’s decision is probably caused by either a wrong decision they made two years ago or by a sound forward-looking decision they made last week. Many people were surprised when Cisco announced the acquisition of Flip. It just didn’t seem to fit into their portfolio and the smart phone market with integrated video was just taking off. This raises the question whether Cisco really went through the proper decision cycle including a thorough market analysis and also proper scenarios techniques. But another way to look at this is that Cisco might be really good at making decisions: the Flip is still selling well but the outlook of small camcorders being replaced by better smart phones is on the wall. Either way, given today’s rate of change it is ever more critical for all businesses to have situational awareness (how are we doing and why?) and to have the ability to think and plan ahead. Business Analytics help us make those critical business decisions.

RIP FLIP

Too bad about the Flip. I love it and still use it frequently despite my iPhone. Lessons learned here: Embrace the speed; stay agile & creative. But most importantly: let’s get better at making sound business decisions. Cisco spent 590M USD on this specific decision. Too bad!

 

Vienna calling!

Harald Hornacek
A famous host: Harald Hornacek

Greetings from Vienna: home of the schnitzel, yummy dumplings and lot’s of amazing history. But Vienna is also the hub of many successful companies. Today is the third European IBM Finance Forum 2011. We have had a great day so far. Lot’s of attendees from the Finance & IT departments of different Austrian businesses and government agencies. The agenda here is once again packed with Finance content. And as in all the other locations, we also have some great speakers. The event in Vienna is hosted by Harald Hornacek, chief editor of the popular business magazine Succeed. The magazine is distributed by Austrian Airlines and flyers love it for its fresh and meaningful content. Harald is quite famous in the Austrian and European business community for exactly that reason. The attendees have a great time listening to his insightful comments and questions. But let me back up for a quick second. There was another Finance Forum in Zurich last week.

HIGHLIGHTS IN ZURICH

The Dolder Hotel, Zurich

The Finance Forum Switzerland was held at the famous and gorgeous Dolder Grand hotel. It is situated high above the city with breathtaking views left and right. Steve Morlidge, the author of ‘Future Ready‘ delivered a refreshing keynote about best practices in forecasting. He will be speaking at many different Finance Forums across Europe this year. We also had a customer speaker from a 500 year-old company (can you believe that?): Mr.Binzegger from Orell-Fuesseli talked about their innovative use of SPSS software to develop highly accurate credit ratings for companies. We also heard Mr Wirth from Nycomed talk about how to build an effective reporting and information strategy in a global environment. The Dolder Hotel staff also served up some amazing food and coffees during the break. Great event.

VIENNA CALLING

Back to the event here in Vienna. It’s been a bit of a mad rush for me in the background. I left home on Sunday morning to run two Rolling Forecast workshops with close to 40 CFOs from different companies in the Middle East on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday morning we found out that one of our customer speakers in Vienna ended up calling in sick and I jumped in with a different presentation last minute. We are about to start a panel discussion between different customers and experts.

NEXT STOP BUCHAREST

Hopefully you will get the opportunity to join one of the IBM Finance Forum events in the next few months. As you can see, we always have great speakers, great content and also lot’s of valuable discussions. Knowledge exchange and networking is a critical part of this. My next event is scheduled for May 4th in Bucharest. To see more photos from all the different events click HERE. See you soon!

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Vienna: Vista 3 - The location fro Finance Forum
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Finance Forum: Many great discussions
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Collaborative BI: A real-life scenario

What cartoons can teach us about information delivery

A picture says more than a thousand words, right? Managers drown in pages of numeric reports. But as John Medina, author of the famous book ‘Brain Rules’ clearly pointed out: “Vision trumps all other senses“. In other words: we are much better at absorbing information through visuals than we are at reading numbers and letters.

To see how effective visuals can be at delivering complex information we just have to look at something that we are all surrounded by: Cartoons. They are in newspapers, they are on websites, they show up on twitter. Cartoons are drawings. A single picture that tells a humorous or critical story. Once you look at them carefully you will notice how deep and smart they can be: They tell a thoughtful joke or story in a single picture.

Talk about the power of visualization! Remember the scandal about the Danish cartoonist a few years ago? A single picture set a huge scandal in motion. To convey the same message, a writer would have to fill a lot of pages. And those pages wouldn’t be all that powerful.

To learn more about cartoons I ended up watching this short Ted presentation by Patrick Chappatte. It is quite entertaining and it highlights the power of visualization. We should all strive to learn something from this. Shouldn’t we all use more visuals in our daily lives? Should we toss those endless 2-dimensional reports and replace them with good, solid visuals that tell a clear story? You know my answer.

 

Why bubble charts are cool

Things can be complex. Especially when we look at multi-dimensional data-sets. The objective of charts is to visualize data in the most effective and easy way. You shouldn’t need a PH.D. degree to decipher a complex chart. But it happens. There are a lot of complicated and useless charts out in dashboards. And it happens more often than we think. For example: Once we reach more than 2 dimensions, many people reach out for 3D charts. Let’s say we want to analyze market size, market share & margin. Many people are tempted to simply create a 3D bar-chart like the one below:

Chart 1 - Is this useful?

There are a lot of obvious problems with these type of charts: The dimension have different scales and it is therefore impossible to decipher. And let’s be honest – this looks super ugly. I could not, would not make a decision based on this chart. The other option is to break this out into multiple charts. But that requires a lot of space – and space is tight in a good dashboard. Analyzing numbers would also be more difficult in that setup as we have to shift our view from one chart to the next.

THE CASE FOR BUBBLE CHARTS

There is a better way to display this type of data. My boys loves this chart type: Bubble charts (all kids love bubbles!). Bubble charts allow us to visualize three different measures at the same time. And not only that: they are easy to read and they allow us to make critical associations between these measures. Let’s have a look at an example: This is a classic bubble chart that displays three different measures: Late shipments, damaged shipments and shipping cost for different carriers. The first two measures are obvious – they are represented by the x and y axis. The shipping costs, however, are visualized via the size of the bubble.

Bubble Charts
Chart 2 - A classic bubble chart

Notice how easy it is to read this chart (which vendor has the best performance?). Depending on the problem that I am trying to solve, I could simple look at the top right area to find the black sheep that are super later and also careless. Or, I could first focus on the size of business that we do with each carrier by picking out the large bubbles. Pretty simple. Also notice how this chart allows me to combine three measures with different types scales: percentages and absolute values. The traditional 3D bar chart was useless.

THERE IS MORE

In Cognos 10, we can also turn any bubble chart into a quadrant chart. This is useful if you want to categorize your data a little further by using a common layout like it is used in a SWOT or market attractiveness analysis. Take a look at the bubble chart that we created using the data from the first Excel 3D example:

A classic bubble chart
Chart 3 - A quadrant bubble chart

This puts the data into further context and makes it really easy for managers to spot specific key points. For example, the attractive markets (high margin & high market share) are up in the right upper corner.

Cognos 10 also allows you to hover over each bubble and you will get the numeric details behind each bubble. This makes it really easy to explore the data.

Chart 4 - Use your mouse to explore

THE LIMITATIONS

As nice as the bubble charts are, they are certainly not perfect. Take a look at Chart 3 above and focus on the intersection of 11.5% Net Margin & 2% Market Share. There is a bigger bubble covering a smaller one. That can easily happen. A superficial glance over the chart can therefore be problematic because we would not notice this. Careful color choice could potentially help uncover these cases. This probably also highlights that bubble charts might not be an ideal solution for large data sets as there would be too many overlaps. But nothing is perfect, right?

cognos slider
A slider - easy to use

Also, keep in mind that bubble charts in their pure and simple form only provide a snap-shot in time. Time-series analysis has to be done in a different manner. But the good news is that Cognos 10 offers us sliders. We can use these sliders to walk through history and easily discover changes in the data.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

One person who has really popularized the bubble charts is scientist Hans Rosling. He literally makes data fly. If you haven’t done so, make sure to watch one of his famous TED presentations.

Take a look at bubble charts! Consider them for your next project. They are easy to understand and they allow us to make critical associations. Chances are managers who have attended business school will certainly like them.  A friend of mine always says that managers are like kids. And kids like bubbles, right?

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Why sparklines sparkle in a dashboard

SPARKLINES SPARKLE

One of the key features of the dashboard in any car is the fact that it is on a ‘single page’. Car dashboards are usually very simple and it doesn’t take us more than a few seconds to familiarize ourselves in a new vehicle. Could you imagine driving a car with a complicated dashboard? Could you imagine having to scroll through multiple pages to get a speed reading while you are driving down the German Autobahn with 200 km/h? The answer is no.

THE CONSTRAINTS

Good management dashboards should be concise as well. Executives especially don’t have the time and patience to scroll through multiple pages of information. But that often creates a problem: We have a lot of information to show but there is limited space. This problem arises especially when we want to show trends. A typical dashboard might want to show profits, margins, win/loss ratios, revenue, pipeline across multiple regions. One way to display this rich set of data in a table. But tables are ineffective in quickly displaying trends. And they take up a lot of space. The other option would be to show multiple line charts. But those take up a lot of space as well.

THE SPARKLINE

Information design guru Edward Tufte developed a solution for this problem. He created a new but very simple chart called a ‘Sparkline‘. He describes them as “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics”. In other words: sparkline charts are very small, yet they display vital trend data. Take a regular time series such as revenue by months. Stick that into a sparkline chart. Below is an example:

Simple sparkline charts

ELEMENTS

When you look at the example above, you will notice how easy it is to spot the general trend: the Conservative Party is loosing ground. You have also noticed the little dots. IBM Cognos 10 allows you to color code the low, mid and high point. (red, black, green). The Green Party is gaining. You can hover your mouse over the line to get the actual value. This type of chart simply provides the ability to obtain a quick overview of the general trend and all that within a very tiny amount of space.

SPARKLINES AT WORK

Sparklines truly show their full potential when you supplement them with metrics or other charts. Take a look the next example:

Sparklines in action

The above object allows us to review margins across regions. The sparklines quickly display the trend. The trend is supplemented with more detailed information. Notice how concise and compact the total object is. And here is an example where we can see the sparklines integrated into a regular dashboard:

A sample IBM Cognos 10 dashboard

The upper part allows us to quickly provide an overview of critical metrics across different dimensions.

SPACE SAVERS

In a prior blog post I discussed the bullet chart. Those charts are also quite small and highly useful. When you combine the sparkline with the bullet chart you have a powerful combination. Notice how much information we are able to absorb (trend, actual value, current performance). A traditional line chart would take up a lot more space.

Sparkling Bullets

SPARKLINES – A FINAL WORD

Sparklines are great for displaying trends. This is ideal for supplementing current information (e.g. YTD Sales). They are tiny, they are easy to use and they are easy to understand. However, they will not replace a traditional line chart. Line charts are definitely a better choice when you want to perform a more detailed analysis. Next time you build a dashboard try to incorporate some sparkling charts.