What occupational fields do you think of when you hear the words “data visualization” and “analytics”? Finance? Marketing? IT? Sales?

What about Distribution? HR? Operations? Fundraising? Education?

One spring when I was in elementary school, my teacher passed out sheets of colored construction paper and instructed us to cut them into strips. We then stapled the strips of paper together to make several chains that were each five links long, one chain that was only four links long, and two chains with three links. She then hung them in a row along the back wall corkboard and explained that each link represented a school day and each of the chains represented a school week.

The four-link chain was for the week we had Monday off for Memorial Day and the two three-link chains represented our short weeks for teacher in-service and make up snow days. Each school day, one of us would get to rip off a link and watch as, one by one, the days and weeks tore away to summer vacation.

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That, my friends, is data visualization: expressing information through imagery. My teacher took a predetermined set of data (days and weeks left in the school year) and presented it in a visual way that helped us better comprehend the amount of time until summer break. Sure, we could count the links if we wanted to know exactly how many days were left in the school year, but one glance at the corkboard gave us enough information to get the big picture.

Finance, IT, and marketing have done a great job at utilizing data visualization, but they don’t own the technique. If a teacher can use data visualization with a group of elementary kids, so can you. Let’s look at some less-than-conventional ways you can use data visualization throughout your company.

Production and Distribution

You’re making and moving products, what do you need pictures for, right? Well, for one, mapping out production and distribution processes helps identify pain points. Are you behind on orders? Don’t know where the holdup is? Physically mapping out your process can reveal possible bottlenecks and opportunities for improved efficiency. Take a good look at:

  • Workload: Bottlenecks can signify uneven workloads. Does anyone have too much on their plate? Are valuable resources being underutilized?
  • Timing: Timing is everything, or so the saying goes, and time is one of our most valuable resources. Are you using your time wisely? Are all of the steps in sync throughout the process? Is there a way to capitalize on unavoidable lag time?
  • Physical layout of machinery and supplies: It’s about more than feng shui. Visualizing movement within the factory or warehouse highlights the most frequently used routes and resources. Are there physical obstacles hindering process flow or highly trafficked areas? Can the most frequently used and requested items be made more accessible?
  • Distribution routes: Wandering and overlapping routes waste time and fuel. Map out and assign deliveries by location to provide drivers with the most efficient routes. Update your maps regularly to help your drivers steer clear of road closures and construction zones.

Human Resources

Project management and recruiting tools allow HR to collect so much information it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees. Don’t get lost in the minutiae. Human resources data visualization can help you to step back to see the bigger picture. Identify trends in employee satisfaction, engagement, and career progression. New employee drop off or confusion may signal a snag in the onboarding process.

Training and certification data can uncover potential issues for succession planning or coverage. Organizational charts can expose over-burdened branches that might benefit from pruning or reorganization. Watch industry trends to ensure your company attracts and keeps quality employees with competitive salaries and benefits.

Sales and Marketing

Okay, okay, I know I said marketing is already accustomed to data visualization, but I also said we were going to look at unconventional methods. Sales and marketing teams have been using charts and graphs to measure progress and success basically since the dawn of sales and marketing. Pie charts show who’s got the biggest market share, line graphs follow sales trends, bar graphs help us compare year over year, and many sales and marketing tools like CRMs and marketing automation software provide simple data visualizations.

What if, instead of using data visualization to analyze what has been done, we used it to flesh out what can be done. I’m not just talking about forecasting trends. Scatter maps are great for seeing geographical location and impact, and lack thereof. Everyone wants to focus on analyzing the data represented. Don’t forget to examine the white space.

Are there missed sales opportunities outside of or between spheres? Can you use this information to literally add in new sales while moving between markets? Scatter graph spheres also make excellent Venn Diagrams, showing overlapping areas, where marketers may be overspending or inundating their customers with messaging. The list goes on.

The truth is, data is information, and every field works with some sort of information. You don’t have to be an accountant or scientist to work with data and you certainly don’t have to be a pivot-table whiz to benefit from data utilization. It’s all around. That thermometer you colored in as your club raised money for the big trip? Data visualization.

The fuel gauge on your car’s dashboard that’s always a little too close to “E”? Data visualization. Pro-Con list? March Madness Bracket? Paper chain-link countdown? I think you can see where I’m going, but the real question is: can you see where you’re going?

Get our free introduction to data visualizations: What they are, and how they work for you

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About the Author


Melissa Reinke is a writer for TechnologyAdvice.com. She is a storyteller, editor, writer, and all-around word nerd extraordinaire. She spends her days managing web content and her nights unwinding in myriad creative ways, including writing for herself and others. From personal memoirs to professional solutions, when writing and editing for others Melissa’s singular goal is to sculpt each piece into its best, most successful form while maintaining the integrity of the original voice and vision. Based in Music City, USA, Melissa can often be found enjoying great live tunes with even better friends. Then again, she’s just as likely to be found curled up with a good book and a tasty beverage.

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