The Power of Visualisation

The following blog post was originally posted to the SAP Community Network on 2 April 2012.

Visualisation is a powerful tool for conveying information in a succinct and digestable manner. In business we see diagrams versus narrative text and bullet points on a daily basis, but have you ever stopped to really consider why this is and why data visualisation in particular is such a key part of modern business?

Before we dive in I’d like you to take a few moments to consider a few questions.

If you have no idea about any of these, just click on the question and you’ll get some detail.


Data is everywhere. It fuels our senses every day through our work and beyond. In today’s connected society consumption of this data has become a drug to the masses with most people gorging themselves on anything and everything. The problem is that this has been at saturation point for some time now and everyone I know suffers from information overload. It may be a very first world problem in many respects, but with a wider perspective it can be considered a whole world problem as even global efforts rely on communication of this data.

In this post I’m going to discuss some of the key points about understanding data and the power of visualisation. So where do we start? Normally I’d say at the beginning, but in this case I think I’ll start at what could arguably be considered the end.

Knowledge is power, but wisdom is better

Humans are biological machines programmed to survive and grow. In order to do this they need to be dominant in their environment and to be dominant in an environment they must understand the environment. How it works. What else is in the environment? What is going to stop them achieving their goals?

The most successful humans are not necessarily the ones who know the most about their environment, but rather the ones who are most in tune with their environment. They understand how to apply their knowledge about their environment in the most effective way.

So let’s think about that for a moment. Whilst there’s certainly a threshold of how much knowledge one should acquire that would be a minimum to being considered successful, there’s a higher importance of being able to distil that knowledge into something more. Using reasoning, experience and other analytical skills to draw out what I’m going to term loosely as ‘wisdom’. This wisdom doesn’t necessarily equate in a linear manner to knowledge and in fact if there’s a vast amount of knowledge to draw upon, it is entirely possible that it may take too long to develop the required wisdom to be successful.

Keep this idea of overload in mind and we’ll return to this later.

So in order to be successful we need to develop this wisdom and this comes from knowledge. But where do we get knowledge?

So the first things that come to mind are probably being taught in classes, reading books and maybe even Wikipedia and Google. But lets look at this a little more abstractly. Knowledge is in essence a level of comprehension and understanding that allows you to apply a concept or process in order to bring about a desired outcome. It requires you to spend some time (who you are and what the knowledge is will affect the amount of time) taking in information from whatever set of sources to once again distil it down into something useful to you.

Information. The global currency of the age. It is the overload of information that is the bane of the modern office worker’s life and in many respects the crux of the issue I’m writing about. Or is it?

Well to be honest it probably is, but I’m going to dig a little deeper to try and give you the whole picture … which will prove useful.

How many of you consider the source of your information? I remember being taught in history classes the value of primary sources over secondary sources of information. How bias should be accounted for in any analysis and how having multiple corroborating points from differing primary sources was desired. These days I would say that the amount of information we receive precludes us from doing this enough. Whilst we might have trusted sources close to us and to an extent people we have curate information for us (e.g. Journalists), everyone from time to time suffers from incorrect information.

Now whilst human generated/curated information can be exceptionally useful and I would not propose we shy away from this, it is computers that have helped reduce our reliance on this. The analysis of data by computers can distil this into information quickly and without bias … assuming that the data fed in is complete and accurate and that the algorithms used (created by a software developer) are reliable and unbiased.

So now we have a model for the how the source (raw data) is continuously processed and distilled into something that enables us to achieve our goals.

How does this help us? Well in essence there is a large amount of material at the start that must be processed in order to get to the final result. However processing takes time and the ability to carry out this processing quickly is a significant factor in being successful. So how can we speed up the process?

Can you see the way forward?

The brain has a variety of senses that can be drawn upon to examine an environment, but research suggests that vision is the most dominant sense and could make up over 80% of our perception, cognition and learning. Therefore it seems logical to infer that if we have to have one way of receiving data and information to retain and process it; visual input is the most efficient.

But it goes further than that. Images turn out to be a highly efficient way of distilling data and information into a more refined form - “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Imagine trying to explain your most complicated business process just using words.

We’re all probably familiar with how much easier it is to interpret graphical representations of facts and figures using forms such as charts. These are probably the most often used types of imagery used in business today (with a possible exception of random clip art in presentations and stock photographs in marketing brochures) and can take a page of data and compress it into a much smaller piece of page estate. The aim is not just to simplify, but also to highlight the key insight(s) held within the data. For example a particular data point that stands out, that is missing, or even a trend.

Using images to in effect analyse data not only gives us a versatile and powerful way of communicating a summary of the data but also allows us to find patterns and hidden meanings in the data. In fact, this last idea of discovering trends and deriving the meaning is fundamental to our learning and our understanding. It is in essence the principle of linking data points together to derive some form of relationship.

Now it probably isn’t a revelation to most of you that images are such an efficient and valuable way to provide analysis, summaries and meaning, but my hope is that this post has given some insight into why visualisations of all kinds are so important and useful to human beings. Before I round off this post entirely I thought I’d offer up something a little extra to give us a final stepping stone to SAP Org Visualization and SAP Talent Visualization by Nakisa.

Visualising Your Organisation

Most of the visualisations you might get from SAP are probably in the form of management information or business information. Nakisa’s visualisations however are really focussed on this idea of showing how things relate and whilst it does incorporate lots of facts and figures it isn’t quite derived from them. The visualisations we’re interested in here are purely about relationships between organisational units, positions, employees, etc.

The idea of relating things and representing them diagrammatically is described by a branch of mathematics known as Graph Theory. A graph is a collection of nodes that are related by links known as edges. It is a particularly efficient and effective way to describe many things. It can be used to map out the structure of molecules, transport networks or even social relationships … such as those found in every organisation.

Nakisa visualisations provide efficient graphs of the hierarchical structures found within an organisation based upon the raw data using the standard relationships defined in the SAP system and of course a little bit of graph theory.

So whilst I won’t guarantee that Nakisa visualisations product suite will make you and your organisation more successful I would hope that this blog post has given you a greater appreciation as to why imagery and visualisations are so useful to us as human beings if we want to achieve more in less time. As to what Nakisa visualisations help us achieve I plan to cover this in more detail in one of my next posts.

Now if only I could have figured out how to consolidate this whole blog post into a visualisation…

… crude, but I think you get the picture.

Further Reading

For those who are interested in finding out more about the topics presented in this blog post, here are some of the better Internet resources that I found most useful whilst researching and writing this post.

Knowledge Management and Environmental Perception

Vision, Images and Visualisations

Graph Theory

Author: Stephen Millard
Tags: | sap | vsn |

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