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IT bottlenecks drive data visualization tool purchases

Allstate, Autodesk, MGM Resorts and Great Western Bank share the secrets to data visualization tools’ success.

Demand for data visualization software is on the rise and, if one recent event is any indication, it's not just pretty interfaces that are convincing people to buy the technology.

Half the customers on a panel at the recent Gartner Business Intelligence Summit said the decision to invest in data visualization tools was due to bottlenecks within the IT department.

“Things are moving rapidly, and the demand for services from IT is always more than what we can supply,” said Patrick Booher, director of enterprise data management for the San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc.

For Booher and his team, the consistency of data after it left the data warehouse was also problematic. Super users were given tools to access the data, but then the numbers were passed around, incorporated into spreadsheets and used to create spreadmarts without much oversight.

Autodesk, a 3-D software company best known for its AutoCAD product, eventually decided to nix the middle man. The company put tools like QlikView into the hands of its business users and opened up its data. (Some data, like financials, is still off limits, Booher said.) And it worked: Business users can now “fail fast,” or quickly figure out what isn’t working and focus on fixing those problems.

What is data visualization?

Data visualization is a general term used to describe any technology that lets corporate executives and other end users “see” data to help them better understand the information and put it in a business context. 

While some IT departments have shied away from data visualization tools, others have learned they can help push the business forward. But before taking the plunge, panelists urged businesses to have their information management strategy in order.

Turning to data visualization tools

Ready or not, data visualization tools -- also called data discovery by Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. -- are here and  making headlines. In the last two years, Gartner’s annual Magic Quadrant Report on BI platforms has emphasized the influence data visualization vendors are having on the market, specifically highlighting QlikTech, Tibco and Tableau. According to the customer panel, these tools, which tend to provide drag-and-drop features into canned, visual models, can give business users a sense of ownership over the data and help tell a story.

“We do that with dashboards,” said Jeffrey Strauss, information architect and manager for the Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Company’s BI department. “But this is interactive and it resonates with people who make the decisions.”

Allstate uses Tableau for what Strauss calls visual analytics. The data discovery tool, which was implemented about five years ago, has a direct connection to the data and enables users to blend and mash together different kinds of data.

Strauss said business users are now capable of moving at a clip that was unmatched before Allstate started using Tableau, a sentiment echoed by all of the panelists.

“Having this data available to them, at their fingertips and letting them peruse the data allows them to fail fast … at a pace we’ve never been able to keep up with,” said Ron Van Zanten, vice president of data quality for Great Western Bank, based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Great Western Bank has grown both organically and through acquisitions from a $2 billion to a more than $9 billion organization in the last three years.

“As we’ve gone in and purchased banks,” he said, “we’ve had to inherit all of the systems they had, the culture, the way they did the reporting and appropriate it into our systems.”

Van Zanten and his team have turned to Microsoft’s Power View and PowerPivot, an extension of the bank’s BI stack, to provide enterprise-wide reporting and data visualization tools. The adjustment has been a difficult one, Van Zanten said, both operationally and culturally. Business users trust their spreadsheets and don’t want to give them up, he said.

“We’ve had to build up that trust,” he said. “People are now starting to see some of the patterns in the information. And having everybody working in that environment, with the same set of books, we can start to do more fun things with BI.”

Van Zanten said the bank’s centralized data warehouse remains its core system, a concept that continues to be a struggle between the business users and the IT department. While business users are content with the most relevant data only, IT insists on keeping a system of record.

“We’ve had to fight that in order to maintain the core system,” he said.

First, build a strong foundation

Before rolling out a BI initiative that included data visualization tools, Van Zanten sat down with the senior management, sketched out his plan, listened to what they wanted and gained their understanding and support, a vital -- and commonly cited -- component for businesses striving to become more data driven.

“From there, we built the infrastructure,” Van Zanten said.

The infrastructure should include an information management strategy that touches on data quality, master data management and data governance, panelists said.

“That’s foundational stuff,” said Rebecca Wanta, chief information officer and senior vice president for MGM Resorts International in Paradise, Nev. “That has to be there.”

Especially as organizations open their data up to the line of business. Booher said one of the key components to Autodesk’s success lies with the business intelligence competency center (BICC). The company has what Booher called “a choke point.” Business users can explore the data as much as they want on their own, but before they publish to the larger enterprise, it has to be certified by the BICC, which resides outside of the IT department.

“It’s something we put in place to help guide people,” he said. “It’s not to control, but to guide.”

This ensures data is coming from good sources, legal obligations are met and protected data remains protected, he said.

But the information management strategy cannot be created in a vacuum and needs to have buy-in from the business users. Wanta advised the business participants to own a particular subject matter -- like marketing or finance -- and provide input on things like metrics and dashboards.

“Please don’t take ownership of it as a technologist,” she said. “Because if you do, you will fail.”

Introducing data visualization tools around a strong information strategy can help maintain the integrity of the data, give business users the opportunity to fail fast, and maybe -- just maybe -- help close the gap between IT departments and business users.

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