Digital transformation has many challenges: technical challenges, process challenges, and even cultural challenges. One of the biggest challenges of digital transformation is also one of its biggest promises—communicating the insights generated by all that data. In other words, how do you get the right information in the right place and time to the right people in a format they can use? How do you turn insight to action?
First, let’s define what we mean by “insight.” Merriam-Webster defines insight as “the power or act of seeing into a situation.” The promise of digital transformation is using data analytics to uncover insights through algorithms that create predictive forecasts and recommendations. Unlike business intelligence, which is often generated through research and historical analysis, data analytics hopes to tell us not just what will happen, but why it will happen. For instance, a historical analysis of the weather might suggest that a day in July will have the average temperature of 85 degrees, and from there we could make predictions about energy use. But an insight based on data analytics will tell us that on days when the temperature is slightly below average, weekend energy use goes up as people do housework they’ve been putting off due to the heat.
Those of you in health care will be familiar with the term “meaningful use.” It’s usually associated with an organization’s level of maturity with an electronic health record. In fact, there are defined stages of EHR implementation and use established by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that set objectives for health care providers. In a nutshell, “meaningful use” measures how data and EHRs are improving outcomes: better health, better safety, increased efficiency. It’s not enough to just capture and digitize data—it’s what you do with it that matters.
So as you begin your digital transformation, ask yourself what “meaningful use” looks like in your organization. If you’re trying to improve operational efficiency, you need to look at exactly which operations and what levers mangers can pull to affect real change. If you want to sell insights to your customers, you must understand what they want to know and what format they can consume that information in. After you have a vision for what people will do with insights once they receive them, you can design your communication systems.
Too many systems are designed from the “here’s what I have to say” perspective rather than the “here’s what you need to know” perspective. To get insight communication right, you have to consider the action that’s going to take place, then ask yourself, “What information would I need to make a good decision?”
For instance a fitness tracker that tells me I’ve taken 6,000 steps today is operating the “what I have to say” standpoint. But a fitness tracker that knows that I usually take 8,000 steps in a day but am trying to take 10,000, and knows that it’s 4pm and I have a break I could use to take a walk is telling me “what I need to know.” That’s designing the insight with the action in mind.
Of course, some users don’t want to be told what to do. They may want an interface that allows them to explore data themselves and form their own insights. The challenge there is building an interface that ensures users see meaningful combinations of data in the right context, so that their conclusions aren’t misleading or unhelpful. Data visualization tools that allow users to change inputs, filters, and outputs can be fascinating, but they can also be difficult to use and can leave users overwhelmed with information and underwhelmed with insight. Going back to the fitness tracker example, showing me months of step counts might reassure me that I’m staying active, but without the context of medical advice and testing, that might be false reassurance.
Right place and time
The second part of a great insight communication system is sharing insights at the right place and time. Relying on anyone to remember an insight out of context or to pass along a crucial piece of information is asking for a system failure. For example, a fleet management report on a large construction site shouldn’t be presented in a home office staff meeting if the foreman and job leads aren’t there to see it. Instead, it needs to be made available to the entire team at the jobsite.
The same goes for timing. It’s essential to give teams information at the right intervals so that they have an up-to-date, relevant understanding of the state of things without feeling overwhelmed.
Obviously it’s important to give insights to the right people—the ones who will drive the action. But sometimes it can be hard to tell exactly who those people are. This is particularly true when you’re dealing with complex team structures and organizational politics. Job titles or an org chart might not reveal who will advocate for data-driven change or who really makes the decisions. These complications can make it tempting to democratize all information. It’s easy to just make that dashboard available to everyone or email this week’s numbers to the whole team, right? And while there’s nothing wrong with striving for transparency, remember that when everyone is responsible, no one is. To drive action through insight, you need to make it clear that even if everyone receives the report, one person or a small group of people is accountable not just for reading it, but for taking action.
I recently heard about a client whose business was undergoing a radical digital transformation—moving from exclusively selling enormous machines to selling data and insights to their customers. And as part of this transformation, they reimagined their sales team and process. The client’s sales manager—who was an evangelist for the transformation—now spends several hours a day taking dashboard and report screenshots, adding his own commentary, and emailing them to his sales team. He’s moving the needle with his team, but knows that this process isn’t efficient or sustainable. Team members can directly access the dashboards and reports themselves, but they often choose not to. While there may be a deeper cultural issue at play here, it’s a good story to keep in mind when designing your system. Do your teams need charts and graphs to review, or would they rather receive reports containing insights? Do they want to log in to a dashboard, get a text, or see the latest numbers in a report? Understanding these preferences and your company’s workflow up front can save you frustration and heartache down the line.
“Digital transformation” is a broad term and can mean very different things to different people. But its cornerstone is change in behavior and organizations caused by adopting technologies and using data to work smarter. Whether you’re building your data analytic and reporting system from scratch, using one off the shelf, or tailoring a system to better suit your needs, think about the information, place and time, people, and format you’ll use to communicate your insights. It’s this consideration that will make it more likely your digital transformation will have a truly transformational impact on your business.