The one skill you really need for data analysis

Curiosity may indeed have killed some cats by tempting them into danger. But the impulse to explore also leads them to find new homes, new hunting grounds and new mates. Their playfulness gives them practice and sharpens reactions for when they really need them.

In our human world of work, we often seem to be more or less cat-napping through the day. Business as usual sounds so comfortable. We are simply not curious enough. As a result, although we may think we are avoiding danger, we are also missing new opportunities. Nor will our skills be sharp enough when they are needed.

The idleness of BI

Such intellectual inertia becomes very apparent when we consider how managers use data. Traditional Business Intelligence builds reporting systems around models that consultants use and re-use among different enterprises. Our dashboards and reports mostly show you whether your business runs as usual, or not.

The aim is to stay safely within the bounds of the comfortable and familiar. We focus on execution, so when our numbers vary too much, the imperative is to correct ourselves and get back on track quickly. There is neither time or motivation to explore the possibilities of a new environment. As my colleague James Richardson says, in business schools, KPI may stand for Key Performance Indicator, but in the real world it frequently means ‘Kills Personal Initiative’.

> See also: Even Boris Johnson is talking about data visualisation – here's why

If it’s smart to be curious, then Business Intelligence, as practiced today, is too often ignorant.

The temptation of not knowing

Curiosity not only helps you in new situations, it also makes you smarter. Recent studies by Charan Ranganath (and others using functional MRI scanners) show that greater interest in a question improves the brain’s potential to learn the answer. Inquisitiveness increases activity in regions of the brain that channel dopamine: a neurotransmitter regulating pleasure and satisfaction. Specifically, this increase takes place while you anticipate the answer. Researchers also found increased activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain thought to be significant in creating memories.

At this point, you may question my intentions. After all, have we not heard of 'idle curiosity,' a kind of pointless, fruitless distraction? Is that what I recommend?

Actually, one other important finding from these studies should matter very much to business. Curiosity appears to be stimulated where we already understand a subject but come across an unfamiliar gap in our information. When we feel compelled to address that gap, then we are curious.

Mind the gap

So, in a rapidly changing world, if dashboards and KPIs are so tame and safe, they may also be paradoxically dangerous. What should we do?

One approach is the new field of 'Data Discovery.' Businesses deploy more usable discovery tools on desktop or mobile platforms rather than on expensive BI servers. The result is that users can build and explore their own solutions to new problems rather than waiting for IT teams to deliver a traditional solution.

However, for me, too many Data Discovery tools just push the same old problems away from IT and onto users rather than truly enabling a fresh solution. Besides, I don’t recommend throwing out all our traditional BI techniques. It’s important to know if you are on plan or not. But we can do better than static views and reports. Our data, after all, is a digital representation of our operations. If we are not curious about that, why be in business at all?

I have three recommendations:

Firstly, ensure that your higher-level KPIs and reports link to more detailed views so you can quickly investigate anomalies. Every KPI needs what the information expert Claudia Imhoff calls 'the why button.' It’s not enough to know a problem exists unless you can navigate to the underlying data. You can build this with BI platforms or the new Data Discovery tools.

Reports and KPIs and visualizations could be far more dynamic in themselves. Charts too often just present a view of what was relevant when the developer built them, or what an analyst originally thought might seem significant.Interactive charts and tables and KPI visualizations are better – any user can follow their curiosity to make and share new findings. Data Discovery apps are typically more agile here than BI tools.

> See also: How to recognise the beginnings of a data explorer

Even this may not be enough to encourage meaningful engagement with our data and our business. Remember that curiosity tingles when a gap in our knowledge challenges our existing understanding. We must expose those gaps.

Showing what you cannot see

Now there’s a challenge! How can you show a gap in our understanding, when we don’t understand the gap in advance?

The secret is to give users what Peter Pirolli has called, in a suitably feline metaphor, 'information scent' – this refers to cues in the presentation of data that hint at new areas to explore and what we may find there.

For example, I know a surgeon who uses an app showing what drugs and services she prescribes for each procedure. But the app also shows (sorted and with shades of color) the drugs and services not prescribed. The shading does not distract the surgeon when she has a specific, well-understood, question to answer. But the additional view is still there and can rouse her curiosity with those gaps in her knowledge. She can ask herself, ‘why do I not offer this new service?’ and ‘why does the emergency room use different painkillers?’ (Answer: because they often have to work without patient records, so must use the safest, least specific drugs.)

These investigations – sometimes playful, often very serious – profoundly inform her professional intelligence.

Sourced from Donald Farmer, VP Innovation and Design, Qlik

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...