The Intelligent Organization will uses visualization and simulation to ensure that employees can rapidly absorb information and knowledge –which encourages action. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words and “every problem can usually be solved, provided that we use an appropriate model” (Winston, 1992).
People have their own preferences
Even though people have their own specific preferences when it comes to tables and graphs, a single good quality picture can often communicate a message much faster. A picture may tell us, at a glance, whether our market share increased or decreased in relation to prior periods. Of course you can still use tables (with text), however graphs and charts offer much more variety when it comes to depicting information effectively so that we can quickly interpret that information.
Visualization is not a stand-alone tool; it is typically used in combination with the interactive Business Intelligence tools we have already discussed. When we add visualization to these tools, they become more powerful. Think for example of interactive analysis in combination with ‘drilling’ in the charts, or of data mining in combination with correlation graphs, which provide quick insight into the most important relationships.
Visualizations and models come in different types:
- Charts: various types of 2D and 3D diagrams such as pie charts, line graphs and bar charts. When we combine charts with tables – so that we have the detailed information at hand – and with the possibility to ‘drill’ the graphs and tables- we create a very powerful tool for manipulating data.
- Maps: specific visualizations, which show information that is related to geographical locations. We can use poste codes for this or latitudes and longitudes in more advanced applications. With the latter, we can perform more complex analysis (or queries) such as: ‘show all employees (or customers) who live within a radius of 40 kilometres of our company’. We often come across geographical maps combined with graphs, which show service levels for example. In this way, we gain insight into the relationships ‘distance – service level’ or ‘rural versus urban areas – service level’.
- Metaphors: in order to enable rapid interpretation, we can use a variety of metaphors – in the form of icons and pictures – in reports, dashboards and other tools. Think for example of photos of products or employees, indicators in the dashboards or traffic lights in reports. If we use these metaphors properly – and include explanatory text – they may also serve as additional information, which may increase the reliability of the analysis. We can not only read but also ‘see’ the figures.
- Simulations: when we use this form of visualization, we enter a virtual world that is not (yet) common. We can for example create a Business Intelligence flight simulator with which we can fly through a landscape in order to observe quickly whether our crops are doing well. When we look in the distance, we might notice a forest-fire and change course in order to get closer and receive information about the severity and the cause of fire. We can consult with the fire chief (head of production) via radiotelephone (chat) about what is happening (production error) and discuss what actions to take in order to control the fire. We can combine all types of visualizations – metaphors, maps and charts – in simulations.
Combining visualization with simulation
When we combine attractive visuals and advanced simulation, we can view a lot of data in a short time and consequently quickly observe problems regardless of the organizational level. It is conceivable that this increases the control-span of managers, which may be positive if we arrange both authority structures and communication structures accordingly. It may however also demotivate employees and reduce their sense of responsibility if managers keep looking over their shoulders or intervening.
The most effective visualization
Regardless of what forms of visualization we use, it is important to keep in mind that information deserves the most effective representation. In case of quantitative values, changes in position and length will be observed quickest, whereas changes in color and shape will be observed slowest and less accurately (Mackinlay, 1986). Basic visualization methods should also take into account the message or signal that data is best arranged in order (Zelazny, 1996).
A line graph, for example, is the best way to show positive or negative trends – of costs or market shares – over time, whereas bar charts (with horizontal bars) best depict comparisons such as which product groups contributed most to the profitability of the organization. Traffic light reports are an excellent way to indicate whether a problem exists. The conclusion is: The speed with which we interpret information depends on how well it is visualized. Obviously, this is also very much culture orientated. Rapid interpretation of data and information is essential for Intelligent Organizations.
A visualization typically represents only part of reality
The strength of visualization (or a model) is also its weakness: a model or a visualization typically represents only part of reality, which means that detailed information is left out. In addition, not all people like to work with visualizations; some of us use tables rather than all sorts of pretty visuals in order to analyze information. Finally, drawing far-reaching conclusions purely on the basis of visualizations – thus, without verifying underlying detailed information – is risky: misreading the scale of a graph, for example, may result in a complete misinterpretation of the figures. Therefore, we must apply visualizations carefully, but nonetheless use them when possible.