A scotoma is an area of partial or diminished visibility, and nearly every mammal has one. More commonly known as blind spots, scotomas obscure our field of view, even when everything else seems perfectly clear. They’ve found their way into the business lexicon to help explain a widespread big data problem.
It’s what Chip and Dan Heath describe as the “curse of knowledge” in their book, Made to Stick: When we’re inundated with information and details, it can become more difficult to see the big picture—and the simple solutions and best ideas within it.
Scotomas get in the way of organizational progress, obstructing improvements to productivity, efficiency, and innovation. And they’re becoming more prevalent in the age of big data and advanced analytics.
The good news is, we now have techniques and tools that help us detect what’s just outside our field of view—or submerged in a sea of information. Many of those tools use data visualization to assemble, view, and interpret information in new ways. In translating raw data into visual constructs, they make it much easier to see patterns, make comparisons, detect outliers, and identify trends.
Data visualization, a fast and streamlined form of analysis, can tease out insights that were always there but were difficult to pinpoint. It answers business intelligence questions instantly, by serving up graphics that can be understood at a glance. And it often reveals simple answers to the most complex questions. Here are two real-world examples.
How can we create clarity from chaos?
Heathrow Airport supports 200,000 passengers daily, and its operations change by the minute. Airport administrators have always had access to large quantities of data, but they struggled to harness it—and learn from it, and act on its insights—in real time.
Heathrow now leverages the power of the cloud and business intelligence software to organize, visualize, and disseminate real-time data from multiple backend systems, including those for weather tracking, flight schedules, baggage tracking, cargo tracking, and others. This ocean of information is translated by data visualization tools to create reports and dashboards easily accessed and understood by Heathrow’s 75,000 airport workers.
Say a shift in the jet stream delayed the landing of 20 flights, putting 6,000 extra passengers in the airport at 6:00 p.m. Previously, immigration, customs, baggage handling, and food services staff wouldn’t know about the extra passengers until they materialized, creating frustration for airport workers and passengers alike. But today, Heathrow staffers have dashboards that show current and forthcoming traffic patterns—not with columns of raw data but with visual charts and graphs—allowing them to add people, buses, french fries, and other resources to support the influx.
“We’re pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence and data analysis to give our passengers the best airport experience in the world,” says Stuart Birrell, chief information officer at the airport. “We’re getting to the point where we can anticipate passenger flow and stay ahead of disruption that causes stress for passengers and employees.”
How can we empower thousands of employees to innovate securely?
Leading tool and industrial material provider Kennametal has an enormous bank of intellectual property dating to its founding in 1938. But making the data accessible and usable for its thousands of employees in multiple countries had been a longstanding problem. The company tried a variety of analytics tools, from individual spreadsheets to specialized software, but nothing was particularly easy to use and results fell short of the company’s goals for more detailed insights. Worse yet, the proliferation of uncontrolled documents and data saved to desktops had become a potential security risk.
To empower its 12,000 employees around the world to find answers and uncover insights, Kennametal now gives them access to cloud-based data visualization tools. Using natural-language query—like a search engine instead of command lines—users can simply ask questions of the data. No software expertise or IT assistance is required, and the answers are returned in highly visual charts and graphs.
A Kennametal scientist involved in product development, for example, can quickly find a similar product with the same material composition and characteristics, reducing the time and cost of development.
“I don’t know if there’s a way to do that today without taking weeks to manually sift through different sources and hoping to find the information,” says director of business partner marketing Christopher Atkinson. “It’s a matter of getting data into the system, and then having the visualization and natural- language tools on top of it so you can ask those questions and get a fast response.”
The takeaway: Answers to complex business questions are now there for the taking. Discovering them just requires the right tools and techniques to shine light into our blind spots and reveal what’s right in front of us.
To learn more about data visualization and analytics tools that can deliver insights throughout your organization, visit https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/.