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More Map, Less Quest

New ways to visualize data are helping companies close the ''fact gap.''

Now You See It

David Lewis learned fast when he launched both the marketing and information technology departments at ING Direct in 2000. Now one of the fastest-growing U.S. banks, with more than 2 million customers and more than $30 billion in assets, ING Direct initially let departments choose their own software for reporting and other needs. As a result, producing monthly finance reports required two or three full-time employees who could look across disparate systems and pull numbers together.

That made it difficult to understand performance metrics, so the company switched to an enterprise database from Oracle and business-intelligence software from Cognos. The latter includes a dashboard, which provides a flexible way to display those metrics visually and customize them for every department. “This allows the people who best understand a given type of data to analyze it easily,” says Lewis.

Dashboards can link cause-and-effect and other relationships between numbers in a way that traditional reports can’t. “A supply-chain dashboard might show that inventory is low in a certain area, yet sales are good,” says John Kreisa, a group marketing manager at Business Objects, another business-intelligence/dashboard supplier. “So you know right away that you need to do something about it.”

Dashboards have evolved from executive information and decision support systems, and now fold in more data in more customizable ways. What began as a set of distilled numbers provided to executives too busy to crunch data can now be displayed via flashing lights, maps, and other means, all in an effort to give as fast a read on the data as possible. Drill-down capabilities allow a user to click on summary data and trace it back to its various sources.

The goals are still to improve decision quality and to fight the so-called fact gap. “Many decisions are being made within an organization that aren’t based on factual information; they’re more based on gut feel,” says Kreisa. “The bigger that fact gap — decisions made without facts — the more at risk a company is of decisions going the wrong way.”

Efforts to present data more effectively have been galvanized by “spatial information technology,” a combination of software, satellites, sensors, and technologies such as radio frequency identification tags that enable users to geosynchronize production inputs and thereby streamline operations, says Susan M. Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. “We now have the capacity to affordably geosynchronize the supply chain,” she says. Companies can now track resources and people in real time, operating “just-in-time” and “just-in-place.”

“This is not just a step up, it’s a leap,” Wachter says. Retailers can go beyond zip-code analysis by converting the addresses of known customers to dots on a map and adding such demographic information as average incomes and average spending on specific items, such as furniture or sporting goods. Armed with that view, optimizing the location of new stores becomes far more accurate.

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