5 tips to help SMBs get visual with data

Visual analytics is something your company, big or small, needs to investigate. Here’s how to get started.

By Beth Schultz

Make no mistake, visual analytics is something your company, regardless of size, ought to be exploring – if not already using.

That message came through loud and clear during the recent A2 video chat “SMBs & the Visual Imperative.” Consider this closing comment from guest Sanjeev Aggarwal, a partner with technology consulting firm SMB Group, in our post-chat Q&A:

Visual analytics is the future of data analytics for SMBs. The traditional BI tools and spreadsheets are a thing of the past. Visual analytics will drive the new analytics-driven decisions at SMBs.

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor. She is currently Editor-in-Chief for AllAnalytics.com.

Aggarwal had no specific figures for visual analytics deployment among small and midsize businesses (SMBs) but cited SMB Group research showing 57 percent of SMBs it surveyed use business analytics. The activity level has really picked up over the last 24 months, he said, as the ask-and-wait nature of basic business intelligence just isn’t cutting it anymore for many SMBs:

If you have to wait two to three days to get an updated report, by the time you get that report, you don’t even remember what the question was. So the focus on real-time insights to help real-time decision making is really key in driving business analytics in the SMB market.

But how do you get started? Our guests shared these tips.

1. Start with the data and the business needs.

“You can have all the fancy visualizations you want, but if you’re not looking at the data you want then it’s useless,” said our second guest, Laurie McCabe, also an SMB Group partner. “There’s no shortcut to looking at the business.”

So when it comes to supplementing business analytics with data visualization, it all comes down to making the information deliverable and usable for the people who need it, she added. Sometimes a simple spreadsheet is OK. Other times – say, when an executive wants to look at market trends, seasonal impact, competitive information, and social streams, for example – well, that’s when things start getting more complicated. “At that level, visualization tools can really come in handy.”

2. Don’t feel you have to go it alone.

As an SMB, you’re not going to have business analysts or a deep IT staff. So what you need is a good partner, one that knows analytics and can help you choose the best tools. A good partner will set the light bulbs to flashing and give the business users their “wow, we didn’t know that” moments and the ability to do their what-if scenarios, McCabe said.

“And that’s when data visualization really becomes powerful because, at that point, you’re looking at too much data to be looking at rows in a spreadsheet or a static chart. You want to be able to manipulate things. Companies are different, but it is a gradual awakening to the big aha!”

3. Think beyond the pretty picture when evaluating data visualization tools.

SMBs can pick from a variety of data visualization tools today, and most feature attractive user interfaces and dashboards, Aggarwal said. “But one has to look at data visualization tools beyond the pretty pictures alone. Look at what these solutions can do for you to support your long-term business goals, your growth perspectives, and things like that.” He recommended looking for tools that allow users to drill down into the data easily, create charts automatically, and provide geomapping capabilities. In addition, consider the long-term goals, he added. Some tools enable predictive analytics and forecasting, which can help in strategic planning. So, Aggarwal suggested, look for tools that provide this functionality from the get-go. In addition, make sure the tool you pick will let you easily, and inexpensively, distribute the data visualization to more and more users.

4. Share your data with potential tool vendors.

The idea here is to hand off a sample of your data and a business challenge to your potential vendors and say, “OK, here’s my data and here’s what’s driving me crazy. Show me how you’d do this with your solution,” McCabe said.

5. Consider the cloud.

The advantages here are twofold, said McCabe. For one, using a visual analytics solution via the cloud means an SMB doesn’t have to build up its own supporting infrastructure. Second, it can lead to a more collaborative environment, especially necessary in analyzing those what-if scenarios the business users want to consider. Cloud, or other server-based solutions, help ensure everybody is looking at the same data – “that good old single version of the truth.”

Visual analytics, provided via a tool like SAS® Visual Analytics, is within an SMB’s reach. And as Aggarwal said on our chat board, SMBs really need to start thinking about how to make it attainable.

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Read more:

5 features SMBs want from data visualization

According to the CIO Market Pulse report Data Visualization: Making Big Data Approachable and Valuable, the top five key features you should look for in a
data visualization solution include:

  • Highly integrated graphics that incorporate data visualization best practices. 
  • Integrated, intuitive, approachable analytic capabilities.
  • Easy report building. 
  • In-memory processing capabilities. 
  • Ability to easily distribute insights via mobile devices and Web portals.

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