Dazzled by your data

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IF TODAY'S executives do not know what is going on in their organisations, it is not for want of information. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that the modern business is awash with data. So the challenge is to make sense of all the print-outs, charts and statistics that fall on managers' desks.

To this end, Gemini Consulting has come up with what it calls "a new approach to the visual presentation and intelligent interpretation of data". The system, called iCharts and developed by Alan Meekings in association with Brian Wood of Optimisation, consists of time-series charts presented so that they are more valuable than conventional depictions of data. As Mr Meekings says, the "i" in iCharts stands for several things, including "insights", "intelligent" and "intrinsically".

Acting on the belief that "there are gold nuggets hidden in everyone's data", he claims that once people start using the method there is no going back. Rather, they see the benefits of gaining fresh insights from tired old data .

To understand how the concept works, imagine you are operating a retail chain and notice that sales have slipped by 3.4 per cent from one week to the next. This apparently calls for urgent remedial action, so the manager charged with sorting out the problem will probably call up statistics for previous weeks in order to see if there is a pattern.

If such information is presented in tabular form, as is generally the case, his or her eyes will probably glaze over and no hidden meaning will be detected. But, by plotting the same information on a chart with time across the horizontal axis and the sales figures up the vertical, a less serious picture emerges. Once the predictable pattern of sales over the Christmas and New Year period is taken into account, it can be seen that the drop in sales from one week to the next is well within the usual weekly variations and therefore not a ground for concern.

The applications are limitless. Mr Meekings offers examples from figures on train punctuality, a busker's takings (in which he detects that takings rise after station announcers remind Underground passengers the activity is illegal) and his own jogging figures.

Whatever the activity, he sees four primary benefits in using iCharts. First and most obviously, the eye and the brain can make sense of what is going on. This means providing new insights with powerful impact, making connections and correlations, making sense of large volumes of data and flushing out extraneous information.

Second, they help people to respond more intelligently by focusing on issues where improvement offers the greatest benefit. This involves splitting the information into two groups: those where there are several points outside the guidelines, and those where there are few if any in that category.

Third, guiding people to respond more appropriately by avoiding "self- inflicted chaos". That is, they steer clear of meddling from above and "arbitrary numerical target-setting".

Fourth, increasing self-motivation. This works by recognising successes and giving people the information they need in order to succeed.

Although the iChart process is straightforward, requiring only basic IT equipment, Mr Meekings warns organisations that they should introduce it gradually rather than with one "big bang". His recommended steps are to start in receptive places - working on the most important issues where the data is suited to the iChart approach - and to gain the visible support of the chief executive.

"The big prize comes," he says, "when you can establish a link between the CEO's most pressing issues and enthusiastic innovation and practical problem-solving at grass-roots level."