Month: March 2010

Basking in a dashboard’s warm glow

When some people look at dashboards, they want to see patterns but not reasons. “They don’t want to read the fine print,” said one attendee in Lyndsay Wise’s dashboards seminar at Enterprise Data World in San Francisco yesterday. That’s what the man learned in one data-quality project for a human resources department.

He was frank enough to call drill-down “the fine print” — the suggestion that the “why?” is just noise. He slipped out before I could find out more.

Had his complacent users been victims of abusive parents or bad teachers? I’ve worked with such users. I trust them, I like them, and most businesses couldn’t do without them. But I’m curious about their incuriousness, as some of them might wonder about me.

There’s too much data, we know that. Tom Davenport ponders the overwhelmingness of it all today. The Economist reported on it last month, and Neil Raden wrote about it 15 years ago. The casual users feel it more and more.

For the overwhelmed, there’s the palliative dashboard. It works the way Mozart does for who can’t tell Mozart from Schmozart: knowing it’s Mozart makes them feel good. The palliative dashboard can be contrary to every best practice we know of and still succeed.

One person in the audience told about a pre-dashboard-era CEO who prided himself on having no high school degree. He wanted yesterday’s sales figures on his desk at 8 a.m. every morning. What decisions did he make based on that data? None! It just made him feel good, someone discovered later. Even without his reading glasses on, the patterns on the paper must have looked nice against the wood grain on the desk.

Attention dashboard makers: mind the furniture.

How Lyza stole the show at TDWI Las Vegas

Lyzasoft wasn’t among the 38 exhibitors in TDWI’s Las Vegas exhibit hall. Lyzasoft sponsored no part of the lunch, and they hired no stage magician. But their buzz was the loudest I heard over the event’s five days.

Others may have heard different buzz because buzz varies. Business intelligence elites gather every year at TDWI’s big Las Vegas event to teach, and they end up schmoozing, too. Over beer, food, and sometimes playing cards, they compare notes.

Is anyone seeking a consensus? I suppose someone might, but the interesting ones just play with ideas, reflect on what others say, make a joke, and think about it. If there’s any “truth,” it develops during a lot of talk and thought, whether it’s about politics, tofu, the future of passenger rail in America, or business. That goes for any kind of conversation, whether the medium is words or data.

In business, the conversation is somehow forgotten in favor of the data. But to Scott Davis, CEO of Lyzasoft, the conversation is critical to understanding the data. “A chart has no context at all,” he said in mid February. “The conversation is what’s really valuable.”

The conversation-free, top-down “single version of the truth” isn’t always useful for those who need to manage data for specific uses and contexts. Its “truth” may in fact be no better than Soviet planners’ forecasts of market demand for women’s lingerie. “A single version of the truth,” said Third Nature research director Mark Madsen in Las Vegas, “is true for a single beat of the corporate heart.”

Enter Lyza 2, Lyzasoft’s new version of its data-wrangling and collaboration tool made for data analysts determined to create truth for specific uses and context. The first edition of Lyza offered Excel-like personalization. In the new edition, collaboration seems to have been the guide.

You could see this year’s improvements coming in last year’s email from Lyzasoft CEO Scott Davis: “Even though they are quants, their world is personal,” he wrote. “Relationships are vital. They think in terms of ‘who do I know who knows X type of information sources?'” He could have also been talking about journalists, artists, and anyone else who has to hear signals within noise.

In the new edition, Lyza encourages fluid interactions with a variety of social-media tools: email, Twitter-like messaging, SMS messaging, bookmark collections with annotations, and other tools track and fortify discussion. Lyza lets people work easily with other smart people they trust. If “Steve” believes that “Brian’s” work is good and “George’s” work is not, he can work with only Brian’s data. It also publishes to the new tool, Lyza Commons, for even greater collaboration while retaining users’ ability to interact with data. Lyza 2 loves a good conversation.

The data and everything that happens to it gets tracked automatically. Unlike in Excel worksheets, changes are transparent. Automatic documenting allows any change to be dug up and fixed. If only the data-free conversations in politics and other parts of business had such a tool.

I was surprised to hear spontaneous praise for Lyza’s new version. eLearningCurve education director Dave Wells and Third Nature principal and one of the event’s keynote speakers Mark Madsen both did. I heard the same from several other BI experts, too. Madsen even gave a brief look at Lyza in his Executive Summit presentation on the future of BI.

I harmonize with people who appreciate Lyza at least partly because I think it’s smart to let people work the way they want to work — the way people have always worked. They prefer working with people they trust and with tools that respond. Everything else is static.