OPINION: Big Data to Actionable Insight: The Eyes Have It

The new world of visual analytics combines the best of reporting functionality with the power of analytics, says Paul Franks, Director, Financial Services, SAS.


A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when you are trying to gain insights from data and even more so when you are looking for relationships among thousands or even millions of variables to determine their relative importance. All organisations generate data all day and every day. Everyone – including executives, general managers, divisional and business unit managers and team leaders – hope to learn from collected data to help them make better decisions, take smarter actions and operate more efficiently. They are seeking actionable insights which can be delivered today.

Regardless of how much data you have, one of the best ways to discern important relationships is through advanced analysis and high-performance data visualisation. If sophisticated analyses can be performed quickly, even immediately, and results presented in ways that showcase patterns and allow querying and exploration, people across all levels can make faster, more effective decisions. The old saying about pictures and the eyes believing what they see has never rung more true. There is a way forward and I would like to share with you what is now possible in the new world of visual analytics which combines the best of reporting functionality with the power of analytics.

A logical and intuitive framework

Organisations will often have a detailed reporting timetable yet place little importance on a reporting framework, standards and methodology. This leaves the people who prepare reports to apply their own understanding of what is wanted. Falling short of requirements is usually the first outcome of such an approach, with reports providing only part of the information required to support effective decision making. In essence, people are looking around in the dark, trying to come up with an answer, rather than having a definitive position of what reporting is about. Therefore the first parameter of better reporting is to have a framework and structure which can accommodate standard and custom reporting requirements in an easy to understand and intuitive format.

Simple display: deep exploration

Secondly, many people still rely on reporting tools for capturing or compiling information rather than use technologies for displaying information. For example, one of the most common approaches is the use of spreadsheets and, while they provide some ease of compilation and dissemination, they often don’t allow an understanding of relationships between information and variables in data. The end result is often suboptimal with the end users being required to prepare their own reports, introduce supplementary information, or waste time in meetings to understand what the information is trying to portray. In these times of demand for increased productivity, high levels of efficiency and streamlined processes, it seems inexcusable for organisations to be in that situation. Even worse, the limited capacity to respond to changing market conditions, changing business models or, indeed, capture new market opportunities with such limited information, is really quite alarming.

Reporting in real-time and across multiple boundaries

Large volumes of data and the increasing expansion of banks and insurers from essentially domestic operations into regional and even global operations, means that deficiencies in reporting at a domestic or country level only get amplified or compounded when reporting is required over multiple geographies. The good news, however, for those who may be facing these sorts of challenges and struggling with reporting today is that there is a new way to provide financial and operational information to end users. Not only in a more digestible form but also in a way that allows the end user to perform a number of discovery and exploratory activities at their own direction. The problems of going back to reporting and finance functions to seek further information should no longer be an issue.

End users now have the ability to perform a number of these tasks themselves using both current information and their own input. They can now produce new reports which can not only support them in understanding their business, but also identify actions needed for increased monitoring or additional management support or control. Many readers may have heard all this before but the difference this time around is that this technology is available. Many vendors can present data in a visual form with pretty colours, dark backgrounds and lots of bells and whistles, yet they still struggle to provide genuine insight to guide management in making effective decisions. The breakthrough technology to overcome this struggle represents a very significant positive transition. I liken the transition to moving from static to dynamic guidance. The type of visualisation technologies discussed here not only provide an engaging interface but also provide powerful functionality and capabilities, given a range of constraints, competing objectives and, last but not least, limited funds.

Dynamic guidance brings it all together for the optimal path to management action. Even better, we can now take complex mathematical calculations and present them in a form that can be shared and demonstrated visually to reveal where the most significant business risks or opportunities lie in markets, geographies or business lines. People often do believe what they see but they are more likely to act on what they have understood. By taking reporting from a static to a dynamic presentation form and combining that with the power of analytics, the objective of better and fuller understanding can be met. Senior management, line management and all parts of the organisation now have the ability to not only know where they stand financially, but more importantly where they stand operationally. Having clarity and understanding of increasingly complex business environments is certainly an outcome any executive would wish to have. Are your eyes seeing what they need to and giving you the information you need for competitive advantage?

visual analytics, reporting functionality, power of analytics, SAS, Paul Franks
AB+F Online
Article Posted:
April 01, 2013

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