WASHINGTON—It takes time for new software to permeate the corporate IT fortress, and data visualization tools that have caught the eyes of the media and design experts are no different. Proponents of data visualization software at a Tableau Software event shared both their frustration at the resistance at some enterprises and advice for changing cultures and breaking through.
Business analysts and Tableau executives championed the imagination of people who think creatively while criticizing traditional business intelligence tools and IT departments as inhibiting such work.
In his keynote address at the Sixth Annual Tableau Customer Conference on Sept. 9, Tableau CEO and co-founder Christian Chabot highlighted several creative thinkers in history, including Grace Hopper—a pioneer in computer programming—and David Stuart—an archeologist whom Chabot said helped decipher the Mayan language. “We can all learn from the great problem solvers,” said Chabot. Such people “combine logic with intuition, deduction with feeling, structure with imagination, sciences with the arts.”
But traditional business intelligence tools work against such combinations, Chabot said.
Chris Stolte, chief development officer and co-founder at Tableau, emphasized this in the second half of the keynote, citing an experiment performed in 1962 by Douglas Englebart, who later invented the computer mouse. Englebart tied a brick to a pencil and demonstrated how it inhibited users from writing—it interfered with the expression of the human intellect. It proved that “the effort of working with difficult tools dampened creativity, exploration and collaboration,” said Stolte. “Enterprise IT is kind of like a pencil with a brick attached to it.”
Conducting a Guerilla Campaign
Several Tableau customers presenting at the conference noted how they went around a hostile corporate IT department, reaching out “to tap into the creative potential of the organization,” said Mark Jackson, manager of business intelligence at Piedmont Healthcare, which runs five hospitals in the Atlanta area.
Jackson said he ran “a guerilla campaign to get [approval of the use of Tableau] past IT.” The IT department was implementing a large project based on SAP and Epic, a suite of health care software, but “I couldn’t wait on them to execute their five-year strategy for business intelligence,” he said. So he bought Tableau with his own personal credit card, set up a server and started giving away licenses to users in key departments of Piedmont Healthcare.
Catching the CEO’s Attention
At another presentation, Peter Gilks, senior insight manager at Barclays Bank, noted that it was his team of three data analysts that is not a part of IT which has championed the use of Tableau simply by demonstrating what it can do.
“It’s spread by people just seeing it on someone’s desk and saying, ‘That’s cool. How do I get a copy?’” said Carl Allchin, customer insight and innovation analyst at Barclays.
The team also set up a display in a prominent public location in the building, demonstrating interesting data visualizations. It caught the attention of many people, including the CEO.
“I’d never seen a big screen being wheeled into the CEO’s office because the data was so interesting,” said Allchin.
That type of exposure is all you need to start to organically grow the use of data visualization throughout an organization, many presenters emphasized. But many also did other things to cultivate its use throughout the organization. Jackson of Piedmont Healthcare created a Microsoft SharePoint site and kept it stocked with lots of interesting data visualizations.
Evangelism Through Training Classes
Jackson said he also runs training sessions (and puts videos of those sessions on the SharePoint site), publishes an RSS feed highlighting cool things that people are doing with data visualizations, holds monthly meetings of an internal user group and distributes a monthly newsletter with news, tips and a “viz of the month.”
All you need to do is show people what data visualization can do, how it can save them time, money and effort, said Jackson. That was how he won over IT and got approval to use Tableau, in fact. “I met with all the people on the [governance] committee and said, ‘Let me show you what I can do for you,’” he said. And as they told him what they needed, “I built the visualizations and answered their questions as they spoke.”
Tam Harbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She can be contacted through her website.