5 Tips to Help SMBs Get Visual With Data

Make no mistake, visual analytics is something your company, big or small, ought to be investigating -- if not already using.

That message came through loud and clear during yesterday's A2 video chat, "SMBs & the Visual Imperative" (view on demand). Consider this closing comment from guest Sanjeev Aggarwal, partner with SMB Group, a technology consulting firm, 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.

Aggarwal had no specific figures for visual analytics deployment among small and midsized businesses (SMBs) but cited SMB Group research showing 57 percent of SMBs it's 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 any more for many SMBs:

    If one has 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.

  • 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."
  • 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. These are those that'll 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!"
  • 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 geo-mapping 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, such as those 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. Do you see any reason SMBs shouldn't have the same visual analytics capabilities as larger companies? Share below.

Related posts:

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors, Folio.net, and others.

Midmarket Companies: Bring on the Big Data

The "big" in big data is no reflection of the size of the organization embracing its potential.

Push Yourself to New Analytical Discoveries

Take inspiration from Christopher Columbus as you pursue your analytical journeys.

Re: examples?
  • 7/17/2013 9:40:15 AM

Good one!

Re: examples?
  • 7/16/2013 11:03:14 PM


Noreen writes

Please share examples of effective visualizations folks.


In transportation planning, one widely used form of data visualization involves integrating map and demographic data. Here's a map of central Austin, Texas prepared by Jeff Wood, a planner and graphic specialist with Reconnecting America (based in Oakland, Ca):


Jeff posted this to bolster a case that a number of us are making for a more centrally located rail route in Austin (where density and worker residential patterns are most concentrated).

The map, visually presenting the overlays of fairly vast amounts of data, conveys far better than tables and tables of raw numbers just how these demographic patterns follow the transportation corridor we're supporting.


Re: examples?
  • 7/15/2013 8:49:58 AM

Please share examples of effective visualizations folks.

Re: examples?
  • 7/12/2013 6:01:15 PM

The link Beth provided to SAS Visual Analytics presents a host of incredible examples to choose from, as does her related post "Checking Out a Visual Analytics Video Library." I think this entry assesses the critical points one should consider when handling or presenting their own data. As we all know, graphs can skew data immensely (think line graphs with inappropriate axes); how data is represented is certai nly a topic for discussion.

  • 7/12/2013 11:41:54 AM

I agree with the content of the post, but how's about a little "show me don't tell me?" :)

Video Chat
  • 7/12/2013 11:31:12 AM

It was a great program Beth -- and I want to thank all of you who stuck around through the technical issues in the beginning. It was well worth the wait!