Coming from an accounting and reporting background, I quickly put Business Intelligence technology to work by automating monthly process, and providing data consumers with access to raw data and trends. Reducing manual work and giving others 24/7 access to what they need was a win.

However, it took some time to realize that this data approach of create-and-publish may be ideal for data workers, but falls short when helping non-data workers realize the full potential of BI in their market or business.

Only later would we discover the benefit of investing in our creative side; data storytelling, and the huge impact it would have on BI driving collaboration and change.

Nothing highlighted this more than when we decided to introduce BI to some of our external customers. Our initial goal was just to automate an existing monthly customer purchase report we’d distribute, along with some profit KPIs. I was warned early on that our customers would likely be skeptical when asked to share their production numbers needed to complete the KPIs. It seemed that most didn’t have time, or find value in exchanging numbers.

We continued on and believed the automation might still bring value. So armed with our newly drafted KPI dashboard, we shared this new format with customers. While the technology created curiosity, it didn’t generate insights, nor did it compel customers to share needed numbers with us ongoing. Without their numbers, we couldn’t calculate the KPIs to create a trend. The information we were sharing seemed to be just ‘nice to know’.

One day I got a call from a sales manager familiar with our effort. He let me know that for his market the dashboard was too complicated. As we talked, we concluded that we should add a new tab that focuses on one main KPI, and simply walk through it from top to bottom; A to Z. As this idea developed further, we decided to add parameters where we would show the actual profit for the month, and then go back and revise the inputs to show what could have been if we had achieved the goal.

We took our new format and story back out to the same customers. We’d review our original KPI page, then flip over to the new simplified A-Z tab. We would walk through each step in arriving at actual profit. Then we would start over, this time asking them to pay close attention to how the profit dollars increase as we change our parameters closer to their goal. It seemed to be magic, so we’d have to do this a couple times to prove it out. With this new tab, we were now telling a short but meaningful story. Needless to say, the response was a complete 180. All of a sudden the concern wasn’t having to share numbers, but how quickly we could get their numbers in the tool.

Did we invent a new magic KPI? No, in fact, this was a commonly known KPI in our industry that we had shared for years. Prior to this we’d explain this concept by writing it out on paper. Sometimes we’d bring a spreadsheet and try to explain how the numbers fit together. This paper format seemed to bring with it a perception that we were just bringing them a cost report and an area where they were falling short. Contrast this with the dashboard tab and our A-Z story, and this turned out to be enough to flip the perception.

We continued taking this format out to other customers, then eventually to prospect customers. The response became predictable. The customer would sit up, lean in, then say, “Wow, I had no idea!”. We also learned to stop talking when the customer would start thinking aloud as to why they might be falling short of the goal, and how to improve. Being able to sit back and just let the customer answer their own questions, solve their own challenges was a beautiful thing.

From this experience, we learned four key advantages that combining BI technology with storytelling had over traditional reporting:

  1. Seeing is believing: A dashboard is visually appealing to an audience. The ability to quickly identify with different scenarios, and drill-in to see the support all from one page is a great use of BI. If you use the right visuals to connect the cause and effect over time, it becomes like shooting a basket and watching the scoreboard change, it helps validate our past experience and builds trust.
  2. Collaboration drives engagement: If I bring someone a spreadsheet, I typically need to spend precious time orienting them to MY beloved masterpiece. I love Excel and my spreadsheets, and over time have learned to know my audience. When suggesting ways for a customer to improve, a spreadsheet can be perceived as pushing my agenda; barriers go up. However sitting next to the customer, logging in and exploring the different possibilities together helps to neutralize this. Working together to answer questions drives engagement. It doesn’t take long to see the wheels start to turn and questions come to the surface; “Can it show us this?… what about last quarter?”. By walking through the story, we are essentially turning the pages of a book, creating suspense, and a desire to see what happens next.
  3. Connecting leads to Ownership: As we learn more of the story we spend more time trying to connect and relate with what might happen next. As equal participants, we want to track and contribute, and by doing so, we take ownership of the events (good or bad) in the story.
  4. Responding becomes Commitment: By the time we get to the end of the story, we are both pulling for success. If we learn something is falling short, we are both open to making an adjustment. At this point we’ve done our part, we’ve created momentum and different options. To have the audience finish the story is where the change begins.

As technical business people we tend to focus on the technical aspects of BI, and less on the strategy of storytelling with BI. For the non-data worker, there is tremendous value in information that illustrates and tracks with our story, not just raw data that accompanies it. Understanding this subtle difference can be the difference between ‘nice to know’ and ‘must have’ BI. No matter how you interact with BI, as a business developer, analyst, or end user, we have a unique opportunity to not just talk about data, but really show what is going on in the business.

Author: Mark Walter