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Storytelling drives usefullness in business intelligence


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We introduce the phrase "Ease of Usefullnes" as opposed to just ease of use, including a more formal description of storytelling

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Storytelling drives usefullness in business intelligence

  1. 1. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 1 Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence By Neil Raden Hired Brains, Research August2016
  2. 2. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 2 Table of Contents Executive Summary ........................................................................................................1 Ease of use......................................................................................................................... 4 Relevance and Understanding...................................................................................................................7 Going From One to Many: Storytelling........................................................................9 Metaphor.......................................................................................................................................................1112 Using Storytelling withVisual Analysis.............................................................................................13 Conclusion ......................................................................................................................16 ABOUT THE AUTHOR....................................................................................................18
  3. 3. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 1 Executive Summary “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
 Any individual exploration or examination of the data must be easily conducted and shared, communicated and subject to group collaboration and consensus that characterizes decision-making in most cases. Ease of use has to be evaluated in a broader context of “ease of usefulness” to the audience of stakeholders, not a single set of eyes. A key competency for moving analysis from the frontal lobes of an analyst to other principals in the process is the ability to tell a story with data. Data Discovery is a recent innovation in Business Intelligence that can bypass the structure of a data warehouse and allow people to create their own viewpoints by assembling analyses and visualizations, animating them and sharing them. While performance and “ease of use” are necessary qualities in this field, they are far from sufficient. There is no measure for ease of use, except the one that shows in low adoption rates. A colorful GUI does not perform if the underlying actions are not understood clearly by the user. Tools must be relevant to the work that people do (not additive or complementary). The underlying data, models and assumptions must be understood. In this paper, we examine three concepts that are needed to succeed:  A realistic model of “ease of use”  A needed competency to weave a story from data as a means to achieve positive results from analytical work
  4. 4. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 2  Examining the benefit derived when people are able to ask questions as needed Background Numerous names have been used to describe the technology and methods that allow people to draw insight from various sources of data: decision support systems, business intelligence, business analytics, predictive analytics and business discovery. For the sake of brevity, we refer to this class of technology as business intelligence or BI. It is clearly an industry segment with fuzzy edges. In addition, the names are somewhat misleading as, in fact, these approaches are used more widely than just for business: in science, government, non-profit sectors and others. Over thirty years or so, much that has been written about these subjects focused on technology, features and poorly defined aspects such as performance and ease of use. Useful to a point, these writings often avoid the well-documented fact that uptake of BI in organizations is historically less than 20%, often much less. To remedy this, various initiatives take place by BI vendors to achieve “pervasive BI” but except in rare cases, it does not achieve the objective. The blame is usually placed on not enough executive support or on IT control that fails to meet the needs of the expected audience. What is rarely addressed is that people in organizations make a rational decision to apply other techniques. Spreadsheets are the most common course, but from an organizational point of view, they are not an optimal solution. The emergence of e-Business and web-oriented applications surfaced an appreciation for user “experience” and “engagement,” very different from the engineering and “human factors” approach of user interface design of enterprise systems. BI vendors “ported” their user-facing applications to web-based interfaces,
  5. 5. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 3 but unfortunately, the underlying models remained the same. A new interface did not bring more “experience” or “engagement.” On the contrary, they were the same old tools in a new wrapper which failed to engage the wider audience more accustomed to true web-based applications designed for the web. What had been lacking in the overall discourse about BI is how can people make use of the tools effectively, regardless of the technology. For example, what exactly is needed for people to not only be informed by these systems, through their own efforts or presentation of material from others, but to use the insight to make well- informed and actionable decisions? Most people who are not technologists are unimpressed with features; they are interested in finding ways to be more effective. It isn’t automatic. In short, ease of use on an individual level pales in importance to how well a given application contributes to the overall ease of use of the group. While any BI system must be engaging, performant, fault tolerant and helpful, findings have to be communicated and explained to others. Making copies, pointing at a screen and developing presentations are of limited use.. The most effective method for communicating ideas and insights to others, and making them stick, is the needed competence of telling a story with data.
  6. 6. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 4 Ease of use Even on an individual basis, ease of use is a pretty complex idea. Some things just aren’t easy. Analyzing data, navigating through it, looking for patterns, choosing the right visual display – no matter how much assistance a product can provide, analysis still requires some effort. For those who find exerting this kind of effort tedious, ease of use is not acknowledged. But for those so inclined, tools that handle the tedious, repetitive and obvious work are considered easy to use. For a long time, it was assumed that ease of use was not an issue for those involved in the production of information technology: programmers, designers, analysts, etc. The understanding was that they were so conversant in their cryptic (or verbose) languages, scripts and configurations, that any attempt to make it easier to use was a sort of affront to their sensibilities. That assumption was wrong. With the development of IDE’s (Integrated Development Environments), Version Control, Higher-Level Languages and a host of other innovations, the process of creating and maintaining systems became much easier, not necessarily with the uses of GUI and mouse and colors and buttons, but by fundamentally changing and streamlining the way developers work. Much of development these days is configuration of applets, reliance on tools such as relational databases and programming in object-oriented or even functional languages. Even more importantly, these tools it made it considerably easier for large projects to spread across groups, or even oceans, not only for development, but for maintenance and enhancement too. Unfortunately, much of what passes for ease of use on the user (or analytical) side has not addressed a fundamental change in the operation of business intelligence. It’s been focused on simplifying things that aren’t simple, masking complexity and providing a pleasing interface (at best) to the individual using the system. For
  7. 7. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 5 example, a major research report summed up ease of use for Business Intelligence as follows: The solution is easy to use when:  It is familiar because it works as expected and is similar to another tool with which a user has experience.  It takes less time and fewer clicks to accomplish the ultimate goal. Routine tasks may be automated and personalized.  It is intuitive and obvious in how a task can best be performed. From Ease of Use and Interface Appeal in Business Intelligence Tools By Cindi Howson, BiScorecard This one-person-at-a-time concept of ease of use has not addressed the central issue – how do you change the way analytical work is done in an organization? How do you get beyond one person and a display of information, to a seamless environment where analyses, ideas and conclusions are shared? Masking complicated requests with pleasing interfaces doesn’t make them easier. In fact, it often does just the opposite. Those who couldn’t learn the lower level interface, such as a scripting language, still can’t and those who could learn the lower-level interface often find the “helpful” interface an impediment. The way to make something complicated easy to use is to make it less complicated. For instance, in business discovery software like Tableau (among others), people seeking information usually start with what they easily grasp then incrementally explore, like feeling for the first step in the dark with your foot, then moving more
  8. 8. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 6 surely with subsequent ones1. But it is too easy for BI to complicate and hinder this process by forcing the driver to make all the decisions in detail with each step instead of anticipating what they might be, learning from the person’s habits. Ten years ago this may have seemed like a dream, but it is quite common in customer- focused applications today, but BI has trailed. To illustrate the gap between what is perceived as ease of use, and the reality, consider a vacuum sweeper: Ease of use has to be couched in terms of doing the whole job. Ease of use first and foremost requires that BI be useful to people and is relevant to the work they do. It must promote understanding through shared ideas and discussion. With respect to BI, a proper test of ease of use has to include:  Obviously, elements of individual ease of use, especially an interface that exposes functionality in a way that is understandable  Performance cannot be separated from ease of use; it’s a “right now” world today  It is not sufficient for BI to inform an analyst; being informed does not necessarily lead to better decisions, or even making them Measures of ease of use are irrelevant. All that matters are that people use the tools productively. They vote with their time and participation. 1 This statement is a metaphor. Its use in storytelling is explained in a further section Presumed ease of use A robotic vacuum cleaner than runs on its own, vacuuming the floor in an unattended way. Actual Experience The small bag has to be changed frequently, doesn’t thoroughly vacuum completely and usually requires bringing out the conventional sweeper to finish the job Actual Ease of Use A sweeper with exceptional suction that vacuums in one sweep and has an easy to empty canister with no bag.
  9. 9. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 7 Relevance and Understanding What does it mean for a BI environment to be relevant? Do the tools and information provide a degree of utility great enough to warrant modifying your work processes to incorporate them? For the most part, BI in general has not. This of course begs the question, “Why are these efforts not relevant?” The irritating refrain from past Presidential elections, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago,” is a good metaphor2. Has the implementation of your analytical environment, typically a data warehouse and/or data marts plus a BI tool made things better? Is your organization more effective? Are you making better decisions? Do you have a better grasp on the elements that drive your success? One element that is prominent in our research is understandability. One shouldn’t confuse this with Ease of Use. People don’t just float out of their smokestacks, they have to be rescued. What is understandable to a data modeler is not necessarily understandable to anyone else. In many cases, people are staring at a schema that is loaded with relational and/or multidimensional terms, like keys, joins, dimensions, attributes and slices. In her landmark book, “In the Age of the Smart Machine,” 3 a volume that no practitioner in this business should leave unread, Shoshanah Zuboff offers some insight into the relationship between learning and control in organizations: “A commitment to intellective skill development is likely to be hampered when an organization’s divisionof labor continuously replenishes the felt necessity of imperative 2 ibid 3 Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, (New York: Basic Books, 1988) 391-392
  10. 10. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 8 control. Managers who prove and defend their own legitimacy do not easily share knowledge or engage in inquiry. Workers who feel the requirements of subordinates are not enthusiastic learners. New roles cannot emerge without the structures to support them. If managers are to alter their behavior, then the methods of evaluation and reward that encourage them to do so must be put in place. If employees are to learn to operate in new ways and to broaden their contribution to the lifeof the business, then career ladders and reward systems reflecting that change must be designed. In this context, access to information is critically important; the structure of access to information expresses the organization’s underlying conception of authority.” The implications are clear: We cannot force success with BI without a desire and commitment on the part of the organization to change and improve the flow of information, the optimization of work processes and the breakdown of artificial barriers that serve certain participants, but not the organization as a whole. This is a much greater challenge than “change management,” a nebulous term that is applied with no rigor. Despite our best efforts, all too often, projects fail to reach their goals for reasons that are not at all obvious. It’s easy to pinpoint the usual suspects, such as mid- project organization realignment and killer politics, our inability as consultants to convince our clients that certain decisions are sub-optimal and a host of others, well documented in the literature (“Ten Mistakes to Avoid…”). But there are also many cases where everything goes well, yet the initiative never gets traction in the organization, penetration stays at a very low level and the ROI projections are not met. In many of those cases, this failure to thrive has been something of mystery. Part of the answer is that, despite good intentions, it may not be possible in some organizations to make BI relevant without a concerted effort to help people change their habits. Developing a spreadsheet or personal database is a singular effort and in those organizations described by Zuboff above, the collaboration needed to make BI successful is just not possible. A collection of singular efforts, inefficient and
  11. 11. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 9 potentially inaccurate as it is, simply has a greater chance of being used as it skirts the lines of authority and control. Another less ominous, but still dysfunctional problem, is that is it simply too difficult to actually build models in most BI tools, which are primarily designed for ad hoc query and analysis using pre-built relationships. So the first step is in our court, as an industry, to learn how to bundle the appropriate organizational transformations into the technology implementation. But there is more. Our offerings must be more aligned with the actual work that people do. Going From One to Many: Storytelling Before humans knew how to write, probably before they even had language, the means for passing wisdom from one person or one generation to the next was storytelling. Most likely our brains are wired to respond to and retain stories (though, oddly, not necessarily proficient at telling them). Nevertheless, it remains perhaps our most powerful tool of communication. To put it bluntly, people are generally more interested in a story than in the storyteller. If you want to get your point across, you need to learn how to condense the data into a good story. But how do you tell a story that can convince and compel? To begin a discussion of telling a story with data, it’s a good idea to start with a (real) story. This happened in the early days of OLAP technology: Consultant: So we’ve built this facility for you so that you can align promotional spend with results using time series analysis. You navigate on any of the dimensions, or pivots, aggregating, filtering or even drilling into detail in this point-
  12. 12. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 10 and-click interface. You have the facility, when you’re ready, to perform some ARIMA analysis to do some forecasting. Client: You don’t get it, do you? Consultant: I’m sorry? Client: I don’t want to navigate or drill or whatever you call it, that doesn’t help me at all. This is a $5 billion company and we spend $1 billion a year on promotions. I don’t know if one dollar of that is spent wisely. I want you to tell me where to focus my promotional spend next year. Consultant: Oh. This is like a story in a story. The inner story is that what the client was saying, which wasn’t grasped right away by the consultant, was that they failed to tell a story and no matter how informative the facility, it didn’t solve the client’s problem. The outer story is what Steven Denning4 calls a “springboard story,” Which he defines as: 1. Must be a “story” with a beginning, middle and end that is relevant to the listeners. 2. Must be highly compressed 3. Must have a hero – the story must be about a person who accomplished 4 7657515-1436633
  13. 13. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 11 something notable or noteworthy. 4. Must include a surprising element – the story should shock the listener out of their complacency. It should shake up their model of reality. 5. Must stimulate an “of course!” reaction – once the surprise is delivered, the listener should see the obvious path to the future. 6. Must embody the change process desired, be relatively recent and “pretty much” true. 7. Must have a happy ending. In Stephen Denning's words, "When a springboard story does its job, the listeners' minds race ahead, to imagine the further implications of elaborating the same idea in different contexts, more intimately known to the listeners. In this way, through extrapolation from the narrative, the re-creation of the change idea can be successfully brought to birth, with the concept of it planted in listeners' minds, not as a vague, abstract inert thing, but an idea that is pulsing, kicking, breathing, exciting - and alive.” That may be a little too much excitement on a daily basis, something you save for the really important things, but it matters nonetheless that turning data into a story is a valid and necessary skill. But is it for everyone? Not really. Actual storytelling is a craft. Not everyone knows how to do it or can even learn it. But everyone can tell a story. It just may not be of the caliber of storytelling. But to get a point across and have it stick (even if it’s just in your own mind, not to an audience), learn to apply metaphor. Metaphor Metaphor is our most powerful tool for conveying information. While a tabular
  14. 14. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 12 report may be a representation of data and derivations, visualization is a metaphor. It is so much easier to see and understand. Comparative volume, gradients of color or depth represent a continuum of values. Lines going up mean “up,’ and lines going down mean “down” No need to scan a range of values to decipher the direction. Metaphor and analogy are often used interchangeably, but an analogy is more concrete and detailed, with the two things being compared having obvious similarities, while metaphor is more literary, with the two things being further apart. For example, comparing the way protons and neurons move around the nucleus in an atom with our solar system is an analogy, while using the term black hole for a very dense mass in space from which light cannot escape is metaphorical. Data visualization is metaphorical. The best most effective metaphors are ones that are new and creative. To say one is “sick as a dog” conveys very little. To say, “this systems is as slow as a rainy Sunday,” is likely to convey a more vivid image. The whole point of using metaphor in storytelling is to illustrate, educate, convince and compel. Metaphors can be powerful and clever ways of communicating findings. A great deal of meaning can be conveyed in a single phrase with a powerful metaphor. Moreover, developing and using metaphors can be fun, both for the analyst and for the listener. It is important, however, to make sure that the metaphor serves the data and not vice versa. The creative analyst who finds a powerful metaphor may be tempted to manipulate the data to fit the metaphor. In addition, because metaphors carry implicit connotations, it is important to make sure that the data fit the most prominent of those connotations so that what is communicated is what the analyst wants to communicate. Finally, one must avoid concretizing metaphors and acting as if the world were really the way the metaphor suggests it is.
  15. 15. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 13 Using Storytelling with Visual Analysis Workers can develop intensely useful analyses using data visualization tools with a snappy in-memory database, agnostic about the data schema of the source data, , and can share them with their colleagues with some stories. Here are a few examples: Market basket analysis: Explaining a complicated analysis with results that can be visualized in an easy-to-understand way often encounters resistance because the evaluators do not understand the technique underneath. Some storytelling usually helps: “I was in Home Depot one day and when I was walking through the aisles, I wondered, how could they ever understand what products customers looked at, or even picked up and put back, but didn’t purchase? How could they modify their merchandising in a way to understand what products are most often purchased together, or, even at a short time later? In fact, how could we figure out how to do something like that here? We have detailed information about customers’ behavior on our website, we know what they pick up and purchase or not, or in what sequence they do. We have information about the journey they take through the aisles [notice use of metaphor].” The application looks at each item purchased and determines a list of complementary items to recommend to purchasers. The market basket application uncovered insightful new data about the items that customers typically purchase together, enabling one organization to present these items as complementary offerings to online customers.
  16. 16. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 14 Figure1: Heat map to visualizemarket basket analysis “We did some A/B testing in the way we arranged things, and, as a result, the average order size for orders with the market basket pairings is more than twice the average order size for orders without pairings. In addition, the information has helped this company better serve its customers, with a deeper understanding of purchasing preferences.” Data never speaks for itself. As the visualization is shared in a discussion format, there may be stories about suggesting bundles that did or did not work, or about anomalies in the data that render it misleading. Further analysis and discussion continues until a consensus is reached. However, everyone involved will have a mental picture of people picking up products and how things group together, mental images that would be lacking without storytelling and metaphor. Visualization of detailed demographicdata to spot trends and correlations:
  17. 17. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 15 Understanding and analyzing demographic data such as age, income, and home ownership status of millions of individual users cannot always be done at an aggregate level. Specifying groups of individuals on the fly, based on the detailed records allows for greater insight. In Figure 2, it’s easy to see at a glance that homeowners in the 35-54 range have the highest balances and that those with incomes above $150K lead the pack. Some of the individual details of the customers in that group are also included in the display. Some analyses are useful in the way they slice and dice information without revealing any sort of causality, simply a rendering of what is. In this example, it might have been interesting to see how the numbers break out, but the storytelling part of it would be focused on what to do about it. “I was having some problems with my second car, a pick-up truck, that was randomly losing power. It seemed to only affect the right side of the engine. I assumed it had to be either a fuel problem or an ignition problem. I ruled out the “brain” because the V8 engine has two brains, one for each side. I swapped those to no effect. I checked fuel lines, checked fuel pressure, and checked injectors one at a time. All normal. I did the usual ignition check by removing wires one at a time and visually checking for a spark. Then it occurred to me that I was wasting time on obvious things and had to think out of the box. What one thing was most likely to account for these symptoms? In the end, it turned out to be the sparkplug wires themselves. In our marketing campaigns, we seem to try too many things and focus and too many market segments. What that data shows, clearly, is that only one or two segments are the most likely to result in sales and we need to focus on them.”
  18. 18. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 16 Figure2: Dashboard profilingthe age, income, market and homeownership status of a financial institution's 30+ million401k holders Conclusion Training, and to a larger extent, the culture of the organization toward learning, is a key indicator of BI success. Equally important is the need to deliver tools in a bundle of learning and cooperation that have a high degree of relevance to the work people do, something that is often trivialized by Information Technology, focusing on the work of a collection of individuals, not a collaborative group. There is much work to do, but one thing we’ve learned from this research is that stepping back a little from the technology of BI reveals a very complicated landscape strewn with hazards. Many industry analysts, vendors, journalists and practitioners are not well equipped for dealing with the challenges of making BI successful. We need to strengthen our practice portfolios and partner with our clients to implement programs that encompass technology and organizational development. Ease of use is only a component of ease of usefulness to the enterprise.
  19. 19. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 17
  20. 20. Storytelling Drives Usefulness in Business Intelligence © 2016 HiredBrains Inc. All Rights Reserved 18 ABOUT THE AUTHOR Neil Raden, based in Santa Fe, NM, is an active consultant, widely published author and speaker and the founder of Hired Brains, Inc., Hired Brains provides advisory services, consulting, systems integration and implementation services in Data Warehousing, Business Intelligence, Decision Automation and Advanced Analytics for clients worldwide. Hired Brains Research provides consulting, market research, product marketing and advisory services to the software industry. Neil was a contributing author to one of the first (1995) books on designing data warehouses and he is more recently the co-author of Smart (Enough) Systems: How to Deliver Competitive Advantage by Automating Hidden Decisions, Prentice-Hall, 2007. He welcomes your comments at or at his blog at Competing on Decisions.