The power of building trust through data visualization
The need to make business decisions faster has become essential for all industries, and the power industry is no exception. However, change management and adapting to a new way of doing things is challenging and often an up-hill battle. With the increase of new applications and technology being used to support the power project life cycle, having the information needed to make those important business decisions can be the differentiator to staying competitive, relevant and potentially even in business.
But there are often deep dependencies on “old school” tools, such as Microsoft Excel® for data collection and reporting largely due to comfortable familiarity more than successful function, which limits the effectiveness of timely decision making. While a tool like Excel is a simple way to quickly interact with data, it is generally not the best way to disseminate information across the organization and creates significant silos between departments.
Transitioning away from traditional tools like Excel for information consumption to more visual methods will increase productivity and the speed at which decisions can be made. The efficiency gains are staggering when using a visual representation to analyse information — compared to how long it takes going line by line through pages of spreadsheet numbers. Even so, the resistance persists, for a variety of reasons.
Much like any unfamiliar concept or technology, when it comes to getting teams to embrace visual reporting, it’s all about trust and a feeling of ownership. It’s about trust in the system and trust in the data it produces. Construction has several detailed business processes, generating lots of line-item detail — like estimating, cost management, field management, power plant management, etc. It is natural to have a desire to see all the detailed data generated by those processes. But by relying on the detail, we lose some of the value these modern tools provide, which is the ability to highlight exceptions, trends and patterns in the data through visualizations.
In addition, by adopting more modern tools, this information can be quickly shared, is customizable and interactive, allowing you and your team to focus their time on areas that need the most attention. Connecting people and systems can bridge technology gaps, bringing new transparency and understanding. For your best outcomes, though, you will want to look for a data solution specifically built to create the construction and engineering KPIs and metrics you’ll need to earn the trust — and to meet the demands — of all your stakeholders.
Seeing Is Believing: Establishing Credibility
Everybody tends to become comfortable with the way things have always been done. But in a time when data is the next currency –– our lifeline to making a profit on projects –– we cannot afford to be left behind. We all need to be able to access information faster.
To gain buy-in from stakeholders to shift from what they are comfortable with, we need credibility and must be able to demonstrate value. With an objective of increasing efficiency in decision-making by transitioning from tabular reports to visual analytics, an easy way to do this is to take an existing report and convert it to a visual representation of the same data. Allow stakeholders to use both forms of the data so they can get comfortable with the visual output that provides less detail. Stakeholders can validate the numbers through their tabular method, and this will start to eliminate the dependency on the detailed reports, which take significantly more time to analyse. Once stakeholders understand that they can trust the math and the visual views of the data, it will start to generate more ideas and potential for other areas visual reporting can be used. Once the capabilities are realized, we will start to see even more efficiency gains as dashboards and visuals are tailored to outliers and true areas of risk.
In my own experiences with change management, the stakeholder group selected must have representation from those that use the system to enter data and those that consume the information and make decisions with the data. A common problem is that the person entering the information sometimes lacks the context of what the data they enter drives from a business perspective. It is important to have transparency on the value quality data provides and how it impacts the ability to make business decisions.
Dashboards: Your Window Into Project Insights
One of the best ways to visually display information is through a dashboard. A dashboard is a page or series of pages that provide metrics and visuals at varying levels of detail, usually with the most important and impactful being shown first. But you can't build a useful dashboard if you don't understand the metrics and information that drives your business.
It is a good idea to have a few working sessions and do some interviews to determine what information is most needed for which roles and focus on the biggest value items first. For example, when building a construction dashboard for a project manager, displaying items behind schedule and risks with the highest likelihood might be the initial focus. Understand how the project manager obtains the information right now; is it through a series of reports, or through a meeting, etc. Then use that information to determine how it can be automated and displayed visually for the project manager and other impacted stakeholders via a dashboard.
In addition to having workshops and working sessions, you can expect an iterative process when building a dashboard. Frequent changes and tweaks to how the information is represented is one of the biggest benefits to using this type of tool, because it is intended to be flexible and easy to use. This means not having to submit tickets to IT and wait while they fix your tabular reports but being able to make changes in real time to provide value faster.
Data owners and stakeholders can also be very involved in the process, which will help improve trust and buy-in. I frequently make updates to dashboards while in workshops so stakeholders can see the changes immediately and provide instant feedback to what speaks to them, and what additional data elements they would like to be able to see. Doing this editing in real time opens minds to the possibilities and potential of visual analytics and is usually when I see the most excitement and energy from stakeholders.
The ability to centralize everything into one single platform is an additional advantage that everyone on your team will enjoy because now they don’t have to navigate to multiple places, run multiple reports to get the information they need. Instead, it is all in one location and can be easily interpreted. While on the surface it might not seem like a huge time savings. However, consolidating information into one view that eliminates manual analysis of multiple pages of data and waiting for reports to run, plus the potential of having everyone looking at different data, really starts to add up in efficiency savings.
Empowering the Future: Knowledge that Lasts
Of course, simply visualizing data does not necessarily equate to increasing productivity and saving time. It is important that visualizations are purposefully built and validated by stakeholders. Stakeholders should be able to look at a dashboard of data visualizations and instantly interpret it for it to successfully replace tabular reporting. What is most important is driving a shared narrative or shared understanding.
Because it’s that shared understanding of what the information is saying that can help you create a collaborative understanding across a power project, and improve decision making, especially for those not in the data field. Tabular reporting can be full of risk because information is often interpreted in a variety of ways and manually manipulated incorrectly because of the detail that is provided. Visual reporting helps reduce this risk and ensures everyone is looking at the same information with little room for misinterpretation.
Most organizations interested in making this shift from tabular reporting to visual reporting have done so organically. As you build your visual analytics, you will also be building in-house expertise and self-reliance — attributes that are empowering not only for your power projects, but for lives and careers. It won’t happen overnight, but if you can start small and have patience with your team, you’ll soon find that you are building trust day by day, project by project, with insights that will serve you and your team well into the future.