A new role for the BI team?

This Christmas holiday, I read Alberto Cairo's "the functional art" - a must-read if you're interested in data visualization at any level. In the fourth part of the book he includes some interviews with leading people in the data visualization field. Especially in the interviews with Hannah Fairfield (at the time of the interview Graphics Director at The Washington Post) and Steve Duenes and Xaquín G.V. (The New York Times) some sentences got me thinking about the role of BI.

Steve Duenes (The New York Times) answers a question about factors that benefit the highly successful graphics team at NYT. His response:

When I worked at the Chicago Tribune, there was real reporting going on within the graphics department, and it was an incredibly useful thing for me to witness and absorb. But the department was structured so "artists" and "graphics reporters" were separate. In some ways, it was an efficient structure, but it didn't allow people to cross over and really get better at things they couldn't already do. (...) At the Times, there is a lot of reporting that goes on, but it can come from anywhere. (...) Why? Because (an exceptional dev / designer but also reporter) (...) knows how to find information, and there is an expectation that everyone on the desk will be involved in content - in gathering it, analyzing it, organizing it, and presenting it.

Somewhat later, Alberto Cairo (the interviewer) states:

So you are not an "art" department. You don't consider yourselves just "artists".

Steve Duenes answers:

Certainly there is an "art" component to what we do, but we are not "graphic artists" and we are not a service group. We want to eliminate the passivity that suggests we should style a dummy headline and wait for the real journalist to fill it with meaning. We want to report and present the content ourselves.

In another interview in the same book, Hannah Fairfield describes what changed in the newsroom when she was hired at The Washington Post:

Years ago, the Post's graphics department, like teams at most newspapers, was more service-oriented. Artists tended to wait for other desks to ask for graphics, charts, and maps, and bring information and possible ideas for layouts back to them. My vision was that the team needed more independence and autonomy. (...) The graphics team was really enthusiastic about the change, but I had to win over some other parts of the newsroom. During the first few months, we spent a lot of time talking to editors and reporters from other departments, who brought very specific requests for the kind of infographics they wanted. "I really appreciate this idea you are bringing to use," I said over and over. "But let's talk about the story. We will read it, we will make a judgment, and I promise you we will provide the graphic that is right for it."

Questioned what was the response, Fairfield continues:

(...) the team feels more valued in the newsroom now that they are able to do their own reporting and have full ownership of the graphics from idea through execution. It's not that much fun when somebody says, "I have an idea; please build it.". When you can advance your own ideas - do the reporting, the planning, the design - and you do it in a team that enjoys the process as much as you do, the results are usually more creative and solid.

Duenes and Fairfield both distinguish between a "service-oriented" dataviz team and a more autonomous/independent one, where the autonomous team (where programmers, dataviz designers and journalists work together) seems to be pretty successful in telling good stories, producing useful content and generally give meaning to the world around us.

This makes me think: Many BICC1's, ACE2s and BI / analytic departments also work pretty "service-oriented": The C-suite generally decides what management information they need, the BI department delivers. Business Control wants to research an idea, the ACE sends someone to help with the stats or trains the end user.

Often, this leads to the right, but not so much surprising results. Even if the end-user (C-level, Business Control, anyone) is always content with the dashboards the BI / analytics team delivers, they hardly ever surprise him with the new insights - they just smoothen the existing process, or give insights to levels below him.

These results delivered by BI teams are great to drive the business - remember that even KPI's often don't give new insights, but they give continuous and accurate insight in the actual process. That's exactly what many BI solutions do today. Some analytics solutions help you with deciding what to do next, but they hardly give insights to the C-level they didn't have before.

There might be a (new?) role for BI / Analytics here, closer to the "graphical journalists". Just as Fairfield teamed up journalists, designers, developers and statisticians together to have creative and solid infographics at The Washington Post, we could form permanent teams consisting of a business expert (business controller?), a tech gal (the guardian of the EDW), a report designer, or whatever roles are necessary for this team to give new insights in your business. These teams are separate from the EDW guys & gals, but they are continuously looking to tell compelling new stories & insights. They want to help you see connections you didn't see before. Just as reading good infographics (like the ones in National Geographic) give you new, accurate insights about the real world.

What do you think:

Is this a new role for the BI team? Is this already covered elsewhere in business?

I'm pretty curious to hear your thoughts, so please respond below this post!

Update (2017-01-11 21:25) - Thanks for all responses & comments3! One thing I should've been more clear on is what I mean by "role". Several people were asking / discussing this could be a full-time role, who should take it up, etc. However, the primary thing I'm thinking about is not about adding a new full-timer or not, but whether this is a new responsibility for the BI team to take up.

Is BI 4 ready to take a more pro-active role in advising the business? Or should it remain more service-oriented?

Founder of this blog. Business Intelligence consultant, developer, coach, trainer and speaker at events. Currently working at Dura Vermeer. Loves to explain things, providing insight in complex issues. Watches the ongoing development of the Microsoft Business Intelligence stack closely. Keeping an eye on Big Data, Data Science and IoT.

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    Alex Thomas

    A term I've heard and like is 'information activist'.

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