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Could data visualisation provide professionals with a powerful tool for communicating important messages to their different stakeholders more effectively? Using information at work to drive efficiency is a well-established practice and the C-Suite is no stranger to graphs and bar charts. What annual report would be complete without the bar chart showing the annual rise in profits? Unfortunately, for many companies, this is as good as it gets – and it could be much better. Good data visualisation is something that every department could benefit from.

There is good reason for senior teams taking time out to learn new data visualisation skills. The advent of big data and the rising tide of information has meant that documents such as annual reports have been growing in size. Many are now thick tomes full of complex terms and collections of numbers. So there has never been a better time for senior professionals to take information to the next level and present it in a way that is visually appealing, easy to understand and, most importantly, useful.

For example, one of the challenges that CFOs routinely face is showing the relationships between different factors within the business. How does the company’s investment in clean technologies impact on the communities in which it operates? What impact do changes in the level of R&D spend have on future new product stream? What is the relationship between the sourcing of purchases and the generation of revenues in the different territories in which the company operates? Complex questions such as these do not need complex answers, but a well-conceived graphic to make the impact that words alone cannot.

But it’s not only communicating to an external audience that makes the art of data visualisation such a valuable skill. Increasingly, many businesses are adopting a joined-up approach to their information management processes. As a result, more information needs to be communicated internally as well. And if internal staff don’t understand the data presented to them, they will never be able to buy into the proposals behind it.

So what is the starting point for the finance pro who wants to become better at data visualisation?

The first step is to recognise that images are as much a medium of communication as words or numbers. The users who excel with visualisation don’t just use images as a mere add-on to words or numbers. Instead, they treat them as a whole new language in their own right.

Next, it is too easy to think of every graphic as a bar chart. But the medium of visualisation has a diverse range of elements to choose from, just like the worlds of words or numbers. It is more than just different types of charts and graphs.

Data is an important part of any C-Suite role, and understanding how to present it is key to communicating it effectively to audiences both inside and outside a business. The most skilled visualisers know that the purpose of visualising data is to tell a story. So they put themselves in their audience’s shoes and let the information speak for itself in order to make that story clear. They don’t overcomplicate it with irrelevant statistics or quotes because this can cause the core message to be lost. With the appropriate presentation, data can be an extremely powerful tool – and tell a story without words.

A strategy for success – and the process behind it

Every team within an organisation, however small, has a role to play in its overall health and success. Today’s C-Suite is increasingly expected to work together and across disparate teams, gathering the relevant data from all business units in order to inform decisions on resource allocation, budgets and investments. This means that capturing the right information, in the right format, at the right time is vital for their work.

Many organisations suffer from the scourge of chasing the paper trail, which is notorious for slowing down the pace of decision-making. And in today’s increasingly competitive environment, faster decision-making is a sure way for companies to gain an advantage and steal a march on competitors. Delays can be a significant business problem, impeding productivity and sapping employee motivation.

But what causes these delays? Poor data management is one problem. In many cases, when information is needed quickly workers can become needlessly focused on the process of retrieving it. For example, a paper invoice that gets delivered to the finance department may have started with an electronic order (which is kept as an e-record in the accounting system) and include a signed paper contract (which is filed in the legal department). That’s three related documents, all in different formats and all saved in different places. If there was a problem with the order or the customer had a question, the issue could take days to resolve as employees would be forced to hunt for a number of isolated documents in separate locations.

In an ideal world however, workers would not have to spend hours searching for information, particularly if that information is required to solve a potential problem or answer a query. The focus should not be on finding data – it should be on using it.

For department heads, the key to making fast, accurate, strategic decisions is in being able to capture and organise all related information into easy-to-find electronic documents. Solutions such as document capture can tie departments together by scanning documents into one secure central electronic repository which is kept updated and accurate across a range of business functions. Document capture also allows documents to be indexed by any concept that makes business sense, giving users the ability to search and retrieve documents based upon different criteria. Technologies such as character recognition and metadata tagging are also the key to proper classification of assets, making searching and identifying almost instantaneous.

All of this can not only make employees more productive but it also ensures that the retrieval of the documents is just one step in the process of collating data, rather than a process in itself.

As our professional reliance on data increases, so does the importance of data accuracy and efficient information management across business departments. A strong document management and capture system not only has the ability to improve workflow, but also improve the decision-making capabilities of those in charge of the process, which is critical to increasing influence in the boardroom. Such a solution therefore, should not only be seen as a tool for efficiency, but also an important strategic one.

Why is digital sponsorship so important?

Some people in your organisation will be great at generating ideas. Others, such as project managers, will have a talent for bringing models to life by sourcing the right technical resources and human talent. But great ideas and management will only get you so far.

Employees looking to turn a smart concept into a game-changing reality will need executive sponsorship. Senior sponsors play a crucial role, helping to ensure ideas and projects move from the design to the implementation phase. They have experience in areas, such as business strategy and financial backing, which will determine the likelihood of an initiative being canned or backed.

In the digital age, the role of a senior sponsor – who could, for example, be the CFO, CMO or COO – is key. From social, through mobile and on to big data and the cloud, the board is being bombarded with potential technology projects.

This interest is a blessing for workers with an interest in the power of all-things-digital. Yet it can also be a hindrance. Get the pitch wrong and sceptical board members will view a digital project as just another proposal in a long line of cash-burning initiatives.

The board needs to understand what a proposed project will do to improve the way the business currently operates. After all, any digital project – such as the mobilisation of a website or the creation of an app – is not an end in itself.

Sponsors will help project managers demonstrate how the web mobilisation project will allow more customers to interact with the business from any location. They will help project members define how an app will provide new kinds of information to a flexible workforce.

Executive sponsors provide the human interface between innovation generation and value creation. Sponsors ensure managers hone a project request for the board that lays out the problem being solved, the options for implementation, and the potential risks and/or benefits of running with the initiative.

The sponsor is also someone who will watch over project members. They will have the ear of the chief executive and will take the pressure off the wider team by having accountability for success or failure, both during and after implementation.

Such sponsorship will help reduce the weight of expectation and allow individuals lower down the hierarchy to focus on what they do best, such as project creation, development, testing, implementation and refinement. Executive sponsors, in short, help turn great ideas into a competitive advantage.

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