By Jennifer Cryder, CPA, executive vice president and chief operating officer
“We have all this data, but struggle to make sense of it.”
“I know there are meaningful insights in my data, but struggle to see them.”
“Certainly, I can answer that question; I just need to spend some time on the analysis.”
Sound familiar? If you’re anything like me, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time trying to make sense of the financial and nonfinancial data we gather at the PICPA. One of PICPA’s strategic priorities this year is to use data visualization software to better “see” the story our data can tell. Expanding our data analysis capabilities has been a project of mine for some time, so I’m very excited to be working with data visualization software to do this.
For those of you who are skilled at Excel, think of data visualization software as a PivotTable on steroids – your analysis is constrained only by your ability to envision a specific question and then organize data in the right way to answer that question. As you begin the project, you’ll encounter two major considerations before you can move forward: choosing the right tool and setting it up, and designing the way the team will interact with the tool.
For our choice of tool, we opted to use Microsoft Power BI. We evaluated a few options, considering factors such as ease of use, integration with our different sources of data, and cost. We selected Power BI because of how easily it integrates with many of the other programs we’re already using. We have an outstanding technology team at the PICPA, and they’ve been able to build out the data warehouse and feed real-time data into Power BI. If you don’t have such a resource, there are many consultants that can build such an infrastructure. This up-front work will ensure that everyone is working from a single source of data. At present, we are only working from the data in our primary database. Going forward, however, we may try to integrate other sources of data to make the analysis capabilities even more powerful.
When it came to how the team would interact with the tool, initially I envisioned everyone on the PICPA team having access to the tool. When I started using it myself, however, I was surprised by its complexity. I’ve since revised my thinking. We’ll have a group of “power users” with the skills to build out visualizations. This group will need both in-depth understanding of how our data is organized, and significant training on the software. Others in the organization will then be “consumers” of the visualizations built by the power users. This group will need a less extensive understanding of the data and the software, but will need to develop the critical thinking skills to drill into data the right way to answer their questions.
We’re off to a great start. I look forward to providing more information for you as we continue on this data visualization journey!