TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

The Story Beyond the Visual

Decision makers seek meaning in their information, hoping to achieve wisdom to incorporate into their decisions.

Storytelling has become a key theme of the stories told by BI vendors. Qlikview and Tableau have been among the forerunners. Large vendors (such as Microsoft) are now onboard. It's a detective story, it's a fairy tale, it's a miracle! All just waiting for you to gather that data, and, by the way, conceive that story arc, concoct plausible characters, and create a happy ending.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, BI vendors tend to focus on the data part of the tale. Much of the discussion revolves around the beautiful, meaningful visualizations of the data possible in their tools, with some examples of stories laid on top of them.

Take the story of Dr. John Snow's 1854 graphical map of cholera outbreaks in London. The tale revolves around the correlation noticed on this map between incidences of cholera and a water pump on Broad Street, the subsequent decision to remove its handle, and the consequent end of the outbreak. In BI advocates' renditions of this story, the usually missing -- but interesting -- aspect is that Snow suspected that the outbreak was already in rapid decline before the removal of the pump handle.

My rationale in telling this story is certainly not to diminish the value of the data gathered or analysis undertaken. Snow's work is regarded as a foundational piece of work in epidemiology. Rather, I want to switch your attention from the data to the story. The story told by BI advocates emphasizes a story arc from data through visualization to a "good decision." Epidemiologists also start with data, but their end point is a proof of their field's value. Stories seldom lead to the same conclusions. Their meaning, like their beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. What, therefore, is vital to storytelling?

"Stories," according to English author, Neil Gaiman, "are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance." He goes on to describe how stories are born, grow, live, change, and die -- like viruses using humans as vectors, as symbiotes that help us make sense of the world. In extremis, they help us survive and endure. In the face of such eloquence, such spiritual worth, it seems almost churlish of us to ask stories to also inhabit the mundane world of commerce. However we can, because business, at its core, is not about profit; it's a social construct by which humans exchange items of value.

In business and BI, Stephen Denning is a key proponent of storytelling in an age of knowledge and a superfluity of data. In his seminal 2001 book, The Springboard, Denning offers characteristics of stories that are effective in causing change. They are told from the perspective of a single protagonist, in a prototypical predicament, familiar and strange enough to grab attention. The stories should be brief, eschewing extraneous details, and blessed with happy endings, allowing listeners to extrapolate to internal stories that apply in their own intimately known settings. Data and visualizations are notable only by their absence.

Bridging from data to story and vice versa requires recognition that there are two distinct, basic modes of cognitive functioning first described in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds in 1986 by psychologist, Jerome Brunner: paradigmatic, based on analysis and explanation, and narrative. The former is clearly the world of data, BI, and rational choices, where we plan to convince others by reasoned argument. The latter is storytelling, which is anchored in action and consciousness and where we hope to influence through emotion.

Although data and information most certainly remain the foundation for making business decisions (as proposed by BI), decision makers themselves finally seek meaning in the information in the hope of achieving some wisdom to incorporate into their decisions. As Maria Popova's beautiful video says: "A great story, then, is not about providing information. ... [It] invites an expansion of understanding ... makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding. ... At a time when information is increasingly cheap and wisdom increasingly expensive, this gap is where the modern storyteller's value lives."

About the Author

Dr. Barry Devlin defined the first data warehouse architecture in 1985 and is among the world’s foremost authorities on BI, big data, and beyond. His 2013 book, Business unIntelligence, offers a new architecture for modern information use and management.


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