When Peter F. Drucker, the father of modern management, performed a two-year in-depth analysis of the General Motors corporation in the 1940s, he undertook what may have been the world’s most ambitious big data analysis ever at that time. However, when he gave the results to GM chairman Alfred Sloan, Al was not happy.
In fact, Sloan refused to acknowledge Drucker’s work. He never mentioned it again and banished his colleagues from referencing the resultant book (Concept of the Corporation) around him.
Alfred Sloan may not have been ready to act upon the harsh reality of his company’s data, but modern businesses thrive on this sort of analysis. Big data has consumed every industry on earth, from automobiles to cosmetics to hotels and far beyond.
Businesses that use the power of data visualization will outperform the ones that don’t, every time. If you are responsible for the success of a B2B business, this article is going to show you why data visualization is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal.
The Goal of Data Visualization
There are two ways you can use big data visualization tools to make your data work for you. You’ll make it easier to parse your own data, identifying trends and finding opportunities to improve your business. You’ll also use it to convey your ideas to other people, improving your conversion rate for B2B sales that can make or break your bottom line.
Understanding Your Data
When it comes to better understanding your own data, visualization is everything. Even a small business has an incredible amount of data at its disposal. Social media statistics, front-end stats such as how long users spend on certain web pages, sales and refund statistics by time of day and product … the list goes on and on.
You have to start by figuring what data is most relevant. Ed Baker, former head of growth at Uber, points out that every great business needs a “north star metric.” This is the single variable that, if it improves, the entire business does better. Once you identify your north star metric, you can see how other variables feed into that metric. Data visualization is crucial for parsing the information and making these big decisions.
Conveying Ideas to Other Businesses
You can use well-visualized data to convey ideas to other people that might be near-impossible to express otherwise. Have you ever sat in a meeting, desperately trying to show somebody why your idea makes sense, and yet completely failing to do so?
I’ve had conversations where my brain is about to melt out of my ears, because I think I’m making perfect sense yet the other party simply does not grasp the idea. In a B2B context, this failure to communicate can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s a critical failure to get the job done. Data visualization is a very cost-effective way to improve your odds of making the sale.
When you’re trying to sell a premium service or product to another business, don’t just tell them why it makes sense—show them. Use the visualization techniques in the rest of this article to remove all doubt that you’ve got the right idea.
The 7 Basic Tools of Quality
There are dozens of different ways to visualize data. It depends on what kind of information you want to look at. However, the best way to start is by understanding the “seven basic tools of quality.”
Made famous in post-war japan by Kaoru Ishikawa, these tools are simple yet potent data visualization methods that most people can learn in a few hours. While not the most intricate or powerful visualizations available, they are elegant and widely understood. When you use one of these tools, you can rest assured that everybody at the table will be comfortable following along.
You want to use these methods of visualization whenever it is possible. Only move into more esoteric or powerful tools when the situation necessitates it. By the time you are working with complex multi-variate data visualizations, you’ll probably need a dedicated data scientist to make it all work. These tools are an easy and cost-effective way to get started.
Here are the seven basic tools, with a brief synopsis of how each one works:
A quick and simple method to use when you are working backwards from a known outcome, asking the question: “Why did it happen?” This tool is often too simple for detailed analysis, but can be great for mid-conversation visualizations on the back of a napkin.
We’ve all used check sheets in our day-to-day lives. This is a great way for small groups to keep track of simple data, such as, “How often are the following conditions being met?”
An example of a check sheet in action would be a coffee shop that wants to track common issues with customers. You could have the barista check a box whenever something goes wrong: Customer says drink tastes bad, customer leaves before drink is ready, customer gets confused while ordering and becomes agitated, etc.
This is a X & Y axis chart where the horizontal axis is the flow of time and the center of the vertical axis represents the average value of the other variable. The top and bottom of the vertical axis are the outer bounds for that variable. The control chart is a simple way to visualize data for a single variable moving through time.
You’ve probably heard the word “Histogram” a lot, but may not know what it is. This is a chart where the horizontal axis consists of columns representing one variable and extending upwards to show the relationship with a second variable on the vertical axis.
A chart consisting of columns and a line, sort of like a blend between the Histogram and the Control Chart. However, Pareto charts do not necessarily reflect the passage of time. The columns are always ordered from largest to smallest and the line is the sum of the data represented by the columns.
This is a simple diagram that plots two different variables with lines across an X and Y axis, meant to show correlations between them.
Also known as an “if-than” chart, this shows the potential sequence of actions or thoughts within a mental or physical process. For example: If the client likes coffee, ask them how they like it. If not, offer them water. If the client says they like the coffee with cream, add cream. If not, prepare it black. This sort of data is awkward to express through pure language, but quite easy to grasp when placed in a flow chart.
Advanced Data Visualization
There are many, many forms of advanced data visualization. This is the stuff that Peter Drucker was trying to do back in the 1940’s—capturing huge amounts of data across an entire corporation and then synthesizing it into the most elegant possible form.
If you want to go beyond the seven basic tools, you’ll need help. This isn’t the sort of thing that an employee or even an ambitious executive can tackle over the course of a few days. A team of data experts will need to spend a lot of time and energy to craft the perfect visualizations for you. With that said, here are a few advanced techniques to consider:
Heat maps are used to show density of activity across a geographical space. This can be utilized to understand city traffic, or to look at where your employees spend time within an office building.
Beyond the physical world, you can use heat maps on websites to see where users tend to move their mouse, or even where they tend to glance at. For example, video game developers and social media platforms use heat maps of user eye-gazing data to optimize their visual layouts.
A word cloud is a visualization where many different words are scattered about in a “cloud,” with larger words being more common. You can use these to understand the most common sentiments being expressed in customer reviews, company emails or other text communication.
While cheap word-cloud-generators exist, there are many reasons why they do not work. An effective word cloud needs to deal with factors ranging from color to glyph shape and beyond.
Comparative graphs combine several copies of the basic power tool charts, by for example putting several control charts on top of each other to compare larger numbers of variables and factors. While comparative graphs are simple to understand in theory, they are difficult to put together in a way that is practical.
Using Data Visualization for Your Business
The best way to understand data visualization is to give it a try. You can get started with basic visualizations on your own, but you’ll want to contact an expert to really make your data work for you.
After all, it isn’t enough to put a few variables into a chart. You need to understand how to collect the right data, compile it into useful visualizations, and then act upon that data in an effective way.
About the Author / Alexey Semeney
Alexey Semeney is the CEO of DevTeamSpace, where he leverages his knowledge and expertise in product design and remote team management to build a unique software development platform. Connect with him on LinkedIn.