TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Are Chief Storytelling Officers Just a Gimmick?

Storytelling seems like just another buzzword. If storytelling can actually benefit your enterprise, how can you empower your users to find the stories in the data?

A story is the way we pass on information to one another. Sometimes that information is only what your friend did on vacation, but storytelling also informs us about some of the world's most important events. When we tune in to the evening news, are we not still being told stories? One kind of story might seem emotional and imprecise while another seems hard, clear, and exact, but they are both a means to an end -- communicating a message to an audience.

Thanks to the term's long-time association with emotive communication, storytelling in the business sense has become a bit of a buzzword. SAP hired its own chief storyteller back in 2013, and Nike employed a chief storytelling officer as far back as the 90s. Even tech start-ups such as Etsy are appointing chief storytelling officers to make sure their brand stories are told in the right way. What does this role actually entail? Are these positions necessary?

To answer my first question, the role of the chief storytelling officer is to tell engaging stories about the business and use these stories to drive business growth. To answer my second question, well, trickier.

Although chief storytelling officers in themselves are not necessarily a gimmick, having just a single figurehead for storytelling in a business does not go far enough. Businesses should empower everyone within their organization to tell stories and then discuss and debate them. How can you enable everyone to be a storyteller?

That's where data comes in. Crucial to the ability to tell factual stories in a business sense is the reams of data businesses now have at their disposal. What better way to make use of this data than to equip everyone across the organization with the means to see data for themselves?

That might not necessarily mean having physical access, but it does mean making data accessible to all -- presented in a way that's easy to understand and can be readily interpreted by key stakeholders and business leaders to see the situation themselves. After all, these graphs are themselves telling stories, so they need to be told in a way that shows the full situation in the most visual way possible. A conclusion drawn from such a graph can inform company stakeholders and help them take a course of action that will ultimately improve the bottom line.

It also shouldn't be just a one-way street. In fact, the value of storytelling comes from the conversation itself -- the debate and passion generated from the audience that the raw data just can't inspire.

Ultimately, the idea should be to create an environment where a business connects their people together with good data and this helps them create factual, data-driven stories that can benefit the company.

For example, international real estate company Colliers International is using data visualization from Qlik at the board level -- not necessarily for executives to do their own data analysis, but so that they can see the stories in their data for themselves. The company needed to be able to capture and harness important client and financial data in a way that could be easily unified, manipulated, and used to put something back into the business.

Whereas before the board had simply been presented data and had relied on others to explain what it meant, implementing visual storytelling software means now they can see the story for themselves. This opens up the data for discussion and debate, allowing the board to make informed business decisions, such as identifying new areas for growth and increasing business efficiency.

Critical business insight only comes from truly understanding data from all angles. Although storytelling and business data may seem to be two disparate entities, they actually go hand in hand. Look for the stories in your data if you want to not only know more about your organization, but also make informed business decisions.

As long as it's steeped in facts and data, storytelling is an important business tool, not just for fairy tales. Businesses should embrace storytelling to help support decisions across the board, not just pay lip service to it by appointing a chief storytelling officer.

About the Author

James Richardson is business analytics strategist at Qlik. Prior to joining Qlik, James spent six years as a Gartner analyst covering business intelligence and analytics. During his tenure, as well as advising hundreds of organizations on BI topics, James was the lead author of the Magic Quadrant for BI Platforms report and chaired and keynoted Gartner’s European BI summit. Before Gartner, James spent 13 years at BI and performance management software vendor IMRS/Arbor/Hyperion in various roles. James was named one of the UK’s “Top 50 Data Leaders” by Information Age magazine in 2015. You can contact the author at james.richardson@qlik.com.


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