Data Visualization: Making Big Decisions on Small Data

May 22, 2015
By processing information on a smaller scale, small and medium sized companies can unlock the big benefits of big data without investing in massive analytics.
By processing information on a smaller scale, small and medium sized companies can unlock the big benefits of big data without investing in massive analytics.
Big data is a concept that has dramatically impacted all industries, allowing corporations to define their futures more purposefully. And the growing ability to process big data has brought upon an era of more knowledgeable corporate leaders and more precise decision-making. Despite all the benefits that big data delivers, data processing at that magnitude isn’t necessary for all organizations. But, the same benefits can be achieved by analyzing data on a smaller scale, opening up the opportunity to start seeing the benefits of data insights to small and medium sized companies.

What Is Small Data?

Enter what we should call "small data." The more common concern for companies in the Construction sector isn’t that they aren’t embracing big data, it’s that they’re doing far too little to even understand — let alone leverage — the powerful small data that literally drives their organization forward every minute of the day.Small data can be things like sales data, profit, equipment up time, machinery down time, personnel productivity, asset life cycles, seasonal surges and dips…in other words, small data points that amount to a very big deal when it comes to monitoring, predicting and optimizing the overall health of the organization.How are you tracking such data now? Pen and paper? Excel? Some complicated and cumbersome database software you bought a decade ago?Aside from the obvious technological shortcomings of such systems, these archaic tracking mechanisms put companies at a tremendous strategic disadvantage as well. Critically, old methodology (such as paper and pen, or even Excel-style spreadsheets) are only reliable in their ability to report past outcomes. Even at their best, they can only additionally record best guesses at future results.
Big data can wait. Data visualization cannot."
What they can’t do is track and report on business performance in real time, nor reliably predict future performance based on actual and multiple data points that tell the true and complete story behind a company’s entire set of co-dependent operations.

Seeing is Believing

In the old days, companies used to display the ever-present "Big Visual Chart" in the lunch room or board room…literally a poster board or some such chart, displaying either goals or targets hit. (Picture the red thermometer that gets inked in red as donations come in to a fundraiser.) You may be using some variation of this today. Sales chart? Revenue growth? Pie chart of line graph?Though one-dimensional, such charts played a useful role in informing, not only management but rank-and-file as well, regarding the company’s targeted performance metrics. The obvious problems being that these charts were static, backward-reflecting, and not actually tied into the systems that were really monitoring performance.In 2015, though, the Big Visual Chart is a flat-screen monitor—a huge screen in various "water-cooler" locations around the office that actually capture, process and report live data streams that intuitively and accessibly report simplified performance metrics. Unlike the poster board, these systems are dynamic, real-time, and completely customizable, provided you implement the appropriate technology into your various systems (such as logistics, billing, HR, asset management, etc.).Big data can wait. Data visualization cannot.What’s happening inside companies across the country is remarkably game changing. Organizations that have leveraged modern technology and even mildly sophisticated systems are finding that, through data visualization in real time, managers and employees convening around the proverbial water coolers are actually seeing their company perform (or underperform) in real time. The result? Rather than looking at a paper chart or report that details past performance, team members looking at real-time metrics unfolding before their very eyes are no longer having primary conversations about recent history, but rather secondary and tertiary conversations about strategy…and the future!"I see this happening, but what if…?" Is this not a conversation you want your team members to be having?

Why Adamo Went Mobile

One company in the Construction space has found firsthand how the use of data visualization tools can help inject enhanced quality, accuracy, accountability, efficiency, efficacy, predictability, profitability, cost and safety into the business. Adamo Group, based in Detroit, recognized that, in order to remain leaders in their space, they needed to modernize their business processes to adapt to modern realities and possibilities.Like many companies, Adamo Demolition has a large employee base working in the field on projects offsite. Even the simple process of tracking hours and projects efficiently and accurately was becoming increasingly burdensome for both employees and Adamo leadership team alike. But accuracy, accountability and efficiency are critical to a provider of eco-sensitive demolitions. The mission was to remove uncertainty and optimize the performance of their people, projects and processes — without adding layers of redundancy and bureaucracy. By first tracking teams in the field to analyze personnel, machinery assets and project workflow to identify areas where greater efficiencies could be realized, Adamo was able to custom develop a system that empowers their people, processes and machinery in the field to track, report and analyze performance into a central system, which would both be powered by, and monitored with, mobile applications and devices. The e-tablet replaced the paper forms. Dynamic, custom software replaced static databases and sticky notes. Data processing replaced spreadsheets. Data visualization software and screens replaced printed reports and sketch-pad accounting.The ultimate solution was a mobile-friendly Web application that allows workers to accurately log tasks, time and equipment used on projects via an end-to-end employee engagement program. It would prove to not only make project tracking and time-management more efficient and accurate, it served to optimize a business process that typically consumed an onerous portion of each employee’s afternoon. "When we told our employees about the new systems and processes, we got the initial reaction you’d expect." says Denise Danneels, General Manager of Adamo Group. "Construction is an old industry and has many generations of people working together. At first, there was some resistance, but in practically no time, those reactions became, ‘Wow! This is a lot easier!’ "Within 60 days, we were fully functional on the new system, and had complete user buy-in. Now our employees are asking, ‘What else can this system do?!’"What replaced once burdensome and inefficient processes was a fully automated and intuitively organized technology asset that would infuse critical accountability and money-saving efficiency across the entire organization, positioning Adamo "light years" ahead of the traditional paper-and-pen competitors. "Across the board, it’s been a huge success for our organization," says Danneels. "I know it’s saving our employees time, and I know it’s saving us money because of the increased efficiency. It also injects enterprise-wide accountability, because now we don’t have to rely on someone telling us that something has been delivered or that a task has been completed. Instead, we can check our computers or phones and see tasks being completed in real-time."

Data Visualization Converts Small Data into Big Intelligence

Being able to take raw data, turn it into something attainable, then display that data in a way that creates meaningful strategic conversations is the difference between storing data and leveraging intelligence. It represents the difference between merely collecting data to store in a paper (or even electronic) file and understanding the true impact that this data has on the organization...and being able to do something about it! It’s the difference between tracking past outcomes, and optimizing future performance!Remarkably, even in an era where companies are chasing big data, and in a modern environment that offers ubiquitous access to technology, the Construction industry, for the most part, is still relying heavily on paper and reporting of past outcomes. But smart companies are working to decode data to provide real-time intelligence and analysis. Ignoring trendy buzzwords like "Big Data" may be easier than embracing change and exploring possibilities. And, in the case of big data, this may even be the prudent course for mid-sized construction and manufacturing firms. But companies in the Construction industry will ignore small data and data visualization at their own peril. Not only will you be watching archaic displays of incomplete and potentially inaccurate information about the health of your company, you may be watching your competitors—the modernizing few—pulling away from the pack.Paul Tibbert is co-founder of GRID, a Troy, Mich.-based design and technology firm servicing manufacturing businesses across North America.