• Strategy
  • CFO Magazine

Now You See It

Graphs, maps, animations, and other visual displays of information may succeed where spreadsheets fail.

Almost all software companies in the business intelligence, budgeting/forecasting, and data analytics markets offer at least rudimentary visualization: graphs, dashboards, scorecards, color-coded metrics, and the like. Cognos also offers animation, multimetric displays, and mapping, and smaller companies such as Spotfire, Visual Insights, and Illumitek have put more elaborate forms of visualization at the center of their offerings.

Compudigm’s see-Power product transfers not only structured data, such as financial information, into pictures, but unstructured data as well. Baltimore-based Cedar Enterprise Solutions Inc. uses Compudigm’s software as part of one of its solutions to, for example, create a picture of media coverage of a company, enabling that company to see whether public perception matches the reality the company hopes to project.

Compudigm got its start in the gaming industry, helping casinos understand traffic patterns so that slot machines could be optimally placed. Since then it has expanded into financial services, telecom, and retail, in each case helping companies make sense of the reams of customer data they collect but often fail to use.

One area ripe for data visualization may be human resources. Compudigm maintains that its software can take thousands of résumés and overlay data points such as salary and expenses to help companies spot patterns.

Is there, for example, unusually high turnover in a given function, and does that correlate to how much is being spent (or not being spent) on training? Visualization seems best suited to those scenarios in which decisions depend on a grasp of qualitative and quantitative data spread across different computer systems within a company.

But visualization can also play a role in making relatively simple information accessible at a glance. Ambient Devices offers a range of wireless devices, from pens and wristwatches to a desktop “orb,” that light up, change color, or otherwise signal a change in the status of information. From stock portfolio performance to the health of an aging parent or the score of the big game, the devices can be configured by users to give an instant read on the matter at hand.

Visualization is also carving out a middle ground between the simplicity of executive dashboards (and orbs) and the complex rendering of scientific or cross-functional data.

Cary, North Carolina-based business-intelligence software maker SAS Institute Inc., for example, produces “strategy maps” that correlate strategic objectives with hard numbers, showing how internal processes measure up to predetermined goals. That visualization capability is part of its SAS Strategic Performance Management software, which is designed to support balanced-scorecard and similar enterprisewide strategy efforts.

“As businesses increasingly focus on processes,” argues Jonathan Hornby, a member of the company’s worldwide marketing strategies group, “the easiest way to see them and communicate them is with maps.”

He points to a September 2000 article in the Harvard Business Review by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, both well known for their work on the concept of balanced scorecards, which noted that such maps give employees “a clear line of sight” as to how their jobs are connected to the organization’s goals.

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