The Business User and BI: Influencing without Authority


As a BI consultant I’m often in a position at a clients where I need to influence without power or authority, however I’m fortunate that I’m seen as an expert in my field so my opinion carries a lot of weight. In this article I want to explore some tips on how anyone can influence without authority, by exploring tools, best practice and techniques that can help give you the edge in getting across your point of view.

Tip #1: Making a Career Choice

If you’ve already taken the time to read this article then the chances are you’ve already realised that to start evolving your role and influencing others is going to mean making a decision; so ask yourself a question:

Is this my job or my career?

Making a career choice can be difficult, when I got my first Junior Data Analyst role it wasn’t a career move, it was a job. It was to put money on the table so I could start paying off my debts. Deciding what you’re doing is going to be your career is a significant step, and it will mean a significant change to your thinking and attitude.

There’s some bad news too, a career takes effort. It’s going to take more than 9 -5. It means reading around your subject, through magazines, blogs and maybe even journals. Push to attend conference and lap up as much knowledge as you can.

Building up a knowledge of case studies and examples from other industries or businesses will help you influence from a position of knowledge. Recommending that you’d like to try something new to your line manager can be difficult, but those examples and knowledge will help your proposals come across as opportunities rather than a risk.

Tip #2: It’s all about the data

Good decisions come from good datasets and so to start influencing you’re going to need the data to back up your opinions. Perhaps your data warehouse already has the data you need, but perhaps you need to restructure it or build new measures, or perhaps you need to seek out new datasets via webscraping or purchasing demographic data. Don’t be afraid to seek out new ways of representing existing data either, for example gathering spatial data for customers or store locations. Social media can also be a great place to look for a new untapped, data source.

Tip #3: Give yourself time

Preparing data can be time-consuming, so ensure you’re using data preparation tools that give you time to focus on the data itself. Drag and drop data preparation tools such as Alteryx take the time away from data preparation meaning it can be done in minutes not hours, leaving you precious time to draw the conclusions you need.

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Tip #4: Be prepared to iterate

You won’t get the data or answers you’re looking for immediately, so don’t limit yourself to one attempt. Be prepared to go back to your source data and add new measures or bring in new dimensions, it may take several iterations to get what you need but it’s important to do this. Again, your choice of tool here is critical – for example Alteryx gives you a layered workflow to allow you to build up your analysis over time, making adding new elements in the middle of the process effortless.

Tip #5: Go Visual

If you’re in a junior position then it’s likely you are probably not going to have a lot of time to influence upwards so it’s important to make every moment count. Displaying your data in charts rather than text tables will allow your audience to quickly see any trends and patterns you talk about. However it’s important to be aware that people may be more comfortable with numbers, particularly if they are in a finance role, so ensure you show the numbers somewhere e.g. in labels, or offer an alternative view which shows the numbers. Using tools such as Tableau will allow you to build great looking views quickly, and allow customisation so that you can quickly turn on labels if needed, or show an alternative view using a drop-down menu option.

Tip #6: Tell a Story

Don’t rely on your audience to draw the necessary conclusions themselves, use your visuals to tell a story. Trying to explain your idea for a new product? Then highlight the growth bar that shows the decline of the incumbent. Use annotations on charts to highlight areas you want to draw attention to. Guide your user through the data using features such as Tableau’s Story Points.

storypoints-presentation

Tip #7: Don’t Mislead your Audience

However don’t take your storytelling too far, deviating from accepted Data Visualisation best practice is a very quick way to lose your audience. Extending axes to flatten a growth curve and hide a drop in sales, or using a non-zero vertical axes for your bar chart are both big no-nos usually and will diminish the rest of your pitch if spotted.

Tip #8: Build a Dashboard not Reports

Have the confidence to build a set of interactive dashboards rather than fixed reports, your audience can then filter and examine the data without fear that you’re hiding anything. If they have a question you can quickly explore the data and answer their concerns without losing any impetus by having to go away and rewrite your report.

Tableau makes building such interactivity into your dashboard effortless by offering actions, such as highlights and filters on hover or click.

Tip #9: Allow Drill-down

Give your audience access your raw data through these simple click actions. Some people will be happy with your overall summary but others may wish to dig deeper, perhaps into specific months or products. Giving them full access right there in the report will ensure they can satisfy themselves that the underlying data your premise is built on is sound, giving them confidence in your argument.

Tip #10: Get Modelling

Using tools like Alteryx it’s now very simple to restructure your data or add extra analytics such as clustering or predictions to your data. For example you can aid your story by clustering your products / customers into say, 7, key groups via K-means clustering. Each of these 7 groups will contain products or customers sharing similar attributes, making it easier for you to talk about them as a whole rather than as individuals. By describing these groups by their key attributes you will give your audience information to identify with them and avoid you needing to get into specifics.

[Full disclosure: While I was once a customer of both Tableau and Alteryx and advocated both products strongly both internally and externally, I now work for The Information Lab who are a partner and reseller of both products]

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2 thoughts on “The Business User and BI: Influencing without Authority

  1. Great read. I am in a particular position where I am not only a “Junior” analyst, in terms of my experience, but I am the only analyst. I have to say, if it wasn’t for individuals, like yourself, constantly sharing ideas, I would not be in the position I am. I truly believe the more effort an individual puts into mastering their craft (Reading, researching, attending conferences, etc.), the more management respects their opinion. Because they know that individual will not settle, they will always try to find ways to improve. Thank you again for the article, looking forward to reading many more.

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