Visualisation: Finance adding value, not adding up
Higher capital requirements, compressed returns, and the rising ‘culture of data’ mean Finance departments are under more pressure than ever to move from overhead to value-add.
In this environment, production of Finance MI is an area under particular scrutiny. Finance teams have historically churned out internal reports at the expense of great time and effort, only for consumers to often complain that MI is not sufficiently timely, relevant or understandable.
But help is at hand in the form of a wealth of data visualisation vendors promising to deliver management information faster, with less manual production effort and in a more intuitive and enticing format.
Delivered well, there is no doubt that visualisation technology can be a powerful force for change; helping Finance rebalance attention away from traditional ‘bean-counting’ towards more value-adding and insightful analysis, and ultimately driving improvement of the bottom line.
However, based on my experience and observation of several visualisation implementations, there are several oft overlooked pitfalls for institutions to beware. Here are my top five.
- Ask yourself: Is this really a visualisation problem?
With all cutting-edge technological developments, the excitement surrounding them can foster a tendency for institutions to massage a business problem to fit the technology, rather than identifying a technology with the power to solve the issue.
Visualisation is no different.
From my experience, common problems that visualisation tools may be ineffectively deployed to solve include poor data quality, limited data model standardisation, and underperforming infrastructure.
Only by solving these institutional problems first can the benefits of visualisation be felt in full: more intuitive and dynamic management information, reduction of production effort and cost, enhanced understanding and engagement with Finance MI and a drive to reduce paper-based reporting footprints.
- Think practical
Given the wealth of beautifully manicured sales brochures and interactive demos available, it’s all too easy to be taken in by the marketing machine when selecting a visualisation tool for your organisation. Senior audiences in particular can be easily swayed by beautiful charts and ‘nice-to-have’ features. However, over-focussing on these items is a mistake.
Most vendors are capable of delivering effective visuals. Instead, it is the practicality of the tool within the context of the organisation and use-case which will determine success.
For example: is the tool available on both Apple and Android if being viewed on tablet? Is it compatible with the organisation’s web browsers? Can reports be viewed offline and on-the-go to overcome connectivity issues?
Overlooking these items at the outset can lead to frustration at the later stages of implementation and significantly hinder adoption and usage.
- Waterfall is not an option
Perhaps more-so than with any other technology, it’s critical that visualisations are delivered using Agile.
Often, the effectiveness of MI hinges on the finer details, those finishing touches that really help the key message to ‘pop’ from a report. These details, for example emphasising variances in bold font, presenting numbers in ‘000s, and colour-coding chart areas based on product or customer segment, have often been built up and evolved over years of institutional refinement. Frankly, attempting to capture this detail exhaustively up-front in a traditional requirements document is an exercise in futility, and the delivery method should reflect this.
To avoid disappointment and significant re-work at UAT and go-live, it is critical that the business operate as strong Product Owners from the outset and that the visualisations are delivered via rapid and iterative bite-size chunks. Where possible, co-locating business SMEs and development teams to aid engagement can substantially boost productivity.
- Keep it simple
The sheer array, and novelty, of graphics to choose from can lead to a temptation to cram screens full of visuals, in a misguided quest to maximise value for money. However, like any good report or PowerPoint slide, less is often more.
Try to keep each unique screen within a visualisation to one key theme and avoid adding more than four components. This will amplify the impact of individual screens and help avoid any performance issues – there is nothing worse than demonstrating a new screen to a key stakeholder group and having to say, “hold on while it loads”.
- Decide between standardised and user-configurable screens, and plan accordingly
There are two extremes when it comes to embedding visualisation in an organisation. At one end there is the IT-led provision of generic, standardised visualisations for all users. At the other is the deployment of a core framework that can be configured by Finance to a user’s bespoke preferences, often referred to as ‘self-serve’.
Both options can work and the choice between the two should be based on the project’s drivers. For example, a drive towards automation lends itself to standardisation, whilst attempting to improve engagement with Finance MI lends itself better to the user-led approach.
However, whichever approach is chosen will have significant implications for rollout. The former will require significant cross-organisational requirements gathering, and a need to reconcile conflicting and competing demands. This will increase deployment time, both for initial go-live and incremental changes, and may result in a compromise product that is agreed by all but used by none.
In contrast, building a user-led platform introduces a danger that the time saved producing existing reports is merely reallocated to production of visualisations. Furthermore, it’s likely to require significant user training and up-skilling to ensure appropriate and effective use and adoption.
Often a hybrid phased approach, providing a core set of standardised screens to begin and later a facility for users to self-design, may be the most appropriate.
These five rules by no means comprise an exhaustive list: there is simply too much to say about visualisation in one blog.
However, by addressing these common pitfalls at the outset, Finance departments can ensure that visualisation technologies deliver on their promise and add value. However, if overlooked, they risk turning a driver for positive change into an expensive and unfulfilled experiment.
With Finance departments and organisational returns already under pressure, this is something we can all ill afford.