My parents lived through a time of immense change in business. They started their careers when many managers still dictated letters. Either someone listened and typed, or the message was recorded, sent to data processing, and then returned for review.

A former boss used to joke that you could carry on an interoffice battle for weeks because the whole process, coupled with interoffice mail, took so long. This stands in stark contrast to instant messaging and emails today. (So much for the power of time and space to build in the necessary buffer to think and react!)

As time went by, self-directed technology became more and more part of the modern business landscape. There was no one left in data processing to type your letters or create a transcript. Rather, a personal computer was placed on your desk along with an appropriate set of software. It was now up to you to generate the documents, spreadsheets, and presentations that you wanted. 

A Spin and A Twirl? Anyone?

Then PowerPoint comes along. Instead of a boring slide deck (back when it was literally a series of images placed into a deck that rotated around with each click), you could now make things spin and twirl to your heart’s desire with a click of a mouse or your spacebar. 

Many believed, if the option was available, it should be used. It turned minor, informative briefings into a really bad roller coaster experience made up of an endless variety of transitions, fades, and animations. (You know exactly what I am talking about.)

Presentation magic, eventually, settled down, and simplicity settled in. PowerPoint decks became more about communication than machine-generated creativity. Moreover, business communication was returned to its rightful role in achieving alignment, driving decisions, and reflecting on performance. 

When you think about it, it is really amazing what you can communicate through a deck, and how the constraints of time and space contribute to a discipline of simplicity. This benefits the presenter and the participant by focusing the attention of everyone involved on what’s most important to inform your next move.

If process was king in the industrial era, then clarity is king in the information era. 

Today, I stand at a similar intersection that my parents did in business decades ago. However, this transition is more than just about a new generation of self-directed presentation tools. It is about how data influences business leaders to make better decisions. 

There is more data available today than ever before. Much of it is readily accessible and growing more cost-effective as each year passes. It is nearly impossible to not have access to data. 

However, access does not mean you can do anything with it. A box of nails does not make a house. You actually have to have wood to nail together. This is where data visualization tools come into play.

The playing field has been leveled. Your move!

Data visualization empowers every leader to take raw data and use it to inform thinking, strategy, and action. Technology typically takes complex and expensive things and makes them simple and affordable. Moreover, that is exactly the current state of data visualization tools today.

You have no excuse not to be on your journey to proficiency with a data visualization tool. (My personal preference is Tableau.) It is really up to you and your willingness to push through the discomfort of learning something new and acquire an essential skill set for successfully leading to a dynamic and iterative business climate.

Where business is going—and it does not matter what business you are in— you have never been before. So process is somewhat a moving target. The best you can hope for is:

  • Historical data to focus your understanding of what happened,
  • Informational data to understand what is happening right now, and
  • Predictive data to get a sense of where things are headed.

What PowerPoint presentation software did was save business leaders from creating an endless sea of complex, written reports and delivered the ability to distill communication down to the essential details in a more consumable format. Data visualization software, in a similar way, moved data from complex states of raw material in the hands of the few into meaningful building blocks of insights that empower leaders to ask better questions and make more informed decisions.

Let Them Have Data!

When a leader is armed with the right data, it will focus their thinking and frame their creativity about how to resolve the business challenge at hand.

Data visualization is certainly no crystal ball or genie in a bottle. Your visualization is only as good as the data you feed into it. However, the clarifying nature of data-informed decision making yields insights that will inform action items and next steps. 

The real challenge in business today is not what to do but what’s most important. You can only move forward with confidence when you have abundant clarity, and clarity only comes from data.

It would have taken highly specialized personnel such as coders and quantitative analysts to accomplish in previous generations what modern data visualization software can do today. It may take some time away from your nights and weekends to get comfortable with the language, practice, and software available to generate these visualizations, but I promise it will be worth your time.

Time to Jump on the Data Visualization Train

There will be a time in the not so distant future when data visualization will be as normal as email, smartphones, text messaging, and yes, PowerPoint presentations. The question is: will you be part of the movement that is already sweeping management groups and boardrooms, or will wait long enough that you will have to play catch up?

My parents were not expected to know how to operate a personal computer on Day One of their professional life. It would be absurd to not have those skills today. In the same way, data visualization will reach a level of ubiquity that it will be nonsensical to think a leader does not have that skill set.

If you are a leader, you do not have a choice. Sorry. What you have been given to steward—the actionable insights data can bring to your organization—is worth your time. 

Dig into the data and learn to love the visualization process. As you do, your thinking will evolve to a level of clarity that will become the secret sauce of your move forward strategy.

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