Big Data Tools and Executive Reporting; Issue #445 August 6 2019

In the opinion of some commentators, presentations of results and analysis to executives will soon be replaced by dashboards created with big data tools such as Power BI or Tableau. They claim that by giving executives access to these tools, the executives will be able to discover all the insights they need and presentations from their staff will no longer be required.

I disagree.

In this article I want to explain why I think presentations created by experts and delivered to executive decision makers will continue to be important in organizations. It has to do with three areas: Roles and Responsibilities, Visual Overload, and Interpretations & Explanations.

Roles and Responsibilities
This is the area where I think the biggest mistakes are made in thinking big data tools can replace experts in an organization. An analyst is responsible for gathering data, performing analysis, and drawing conclusions from that analysis. The executive sets the goals for the organization and makes decisions based on the insights that the analysts uncover through their analysis.

When you simply provide an executive with an online dashboard of nicely formatted data, you ask the executive to perform the role of the analyst. They have to do the work to analyze what they are looking at, know when and how to drill down into further details, and figure out what the conclusions are. This is not their role and it is not what the organization pays them to do.

As a result, organizations who have gone the dashboard route to replace executive reporting have seen how it has failed. After I spoke on this at the AFP National Conference last year in Chicago, I had someone approach me and say that I had exactly described what they had experienced. The dashboards were replaced because the executives aren’t going to do the work of staff they have hired to do that work. At a regional AFP conference someone shared that after the dashboards were released the IT group tracked executive usage. The CEO logged on once and the CFO only three times. Why? Because doing analysis is not their role.

Visual Overload
Most of the dashboard examples you will see online are a confusing overload of data and poorly designed graphs. Why does this happen? In an effort to include all the data that the user may want to look at, the designer packs in as much as possible, often overwhelming the viewer. Some of the numbers are replaced by graphs, but the graph choice is made once and tries to satisfy every different message that the data may need to show. This is impossible, so you end up with graphs that communicate a different message than they should given the data for that period. Selection of the important data and a visual representation of the message are important to effective communication. It is almost impossible to expect a system to figure this out for every scenario. That is one of the tasks expert analysts do and that is one reason they are so valuable in organizations.

Interpretation & Explanation
When a dashboard is first programmed, calculations are set up and run automatically after that. The downside is values can be displayed like -137,000% (from a real dashboard example) that lead to more questions and ultimately end up making the executives question the credibility of what they are being shown. An analyst catches these issues and can correct the data or the calculation as needed. This allows the executive to correctly interpret the values when presented.

Dashboards also rarely offer explanations of values that may be outside what the executive expects. In the absence of an explanation, the executive will make up their own, which may not be correct. A presentation from an analyst can include these important interpretations and explanations so that the executives can be focused on the decision making that will move the organization closer to its goals.

I do think that big data tools can play a key role in allowing analysts to be able to analyze more data, consider more diverse data, and discover better insights to share with executives. But I see these tools as useful for analysts, not executive reporting. The role of the analyst in performing the analysis, discovering the insights, and presenting them in context so the executive can make a better decision is valuable to organizations.

By Dave Paradi

Dave Paradi has over twenty-two years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written ten books and over 600 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don't overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of fewer than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel, PowerPoint, and Teams communities. His articles and videos on virtual presenting have been viewed over 4.8 million times and liked over 17,000 times on YouTube.