You are not happy at work. I can clearly see that. Morale is low due to the economy, but it’s something else, isn’t it? You feel handcuffed. You keep hitting a wall. It hurts, hitting a wall while handcuffed…
You work with data. There is a formal BI tool in your organization, but it is unusable (IT is proud of it). You spend your precious time copying data from the tool to Excel. That’s why you leave work late. You could be with the guys at the bar, or playing with the kids. You enjoy working with data, but not like that. It takes ages for you to do something because of those stupid, time-consuming tasks.
Another quarter, another quarter review. You could update a PowerPoint presentation but no, top management changed the metrics (it always does), and you have to redo everything from scratch (Sisyphus is your middle name). And because of the branding thing, only a square inch is available for real content, like those 3D pie charts they love so much.
Recently, a competitor launch an under-the-radar campaign in some counties. Your sales went south. The data was there, sleeping like angels in the IT servers. But a report was missing and the IT guys can’t tell the difference between a tortilla and Venus de Milo, so that went unnoticed. The IT is now planning a new report that will be implemented using the BI tool, as soon as all requirements are met, of course. It should be available by the end of next year. The beta version, I mean.
Guts ‘n’ Pies Management
You know that something is wrong, you just know. Data is expensive, the BI tool was/is expensive and the end result is a few tables and some fancy charts. Is this a proper decision-supporting system? It isn’t. It’s a farce called guts-and-pies management. Gut-based decisions and pies to justify the expense (I mean, the investment). And you hate it.
So You Start Wondering
You are not an Excel expert, it’s not your job, but you’ve been trying to automate as many boring tasks as possible. You ended up a reluctant advanced Excel user.
And then a while ago you discover that two charts side by side are much better than one in each slide. It’s almost a dashboard. That plotting growth against market share in a scatter plot makes much more sense than making two bar charts (by the way, there isn’t a 3D scatter plot available in Excel and this chart actually forces the audience to wake up and think; that’s why it is banned from so many organizations). You don’t know it yet, but you are discovering data visualization.
I see that you are asking some inconvenient questions, like “how can I connect a workbook to the Oracle database?”. The IT starts disliking you. Your 3D chart ratio and PPT effects are much below average. Your presentations, I’m afraid to tell you, are boring. Their opinion, not mine.
What are you going to do now?
There is no way back. You must know how deep is the rabbit hole. You must know more about Excel, about dashboards, about data visualization. Because good data analysis, visualization and communication are long-term skills that will help you stay competitive in the labor market. You can easily design a dashboard with those skills. Excel is optional, but if you want to actually implement a working dashboard in Excel you must learn some advanced formulas and not-so-advanced VBA (yes, I know, you are not a programmer, you don’t have to).
Your Current Job
Your plan is to learn how to create an Excel dashboard, find some unmet needs and design a couple of dashboards that you’ll try to sell internally. That’s a good plan, but don’t fall in love with the dashboards. Make sure they see the difference between the dashboard and the current reports, but draw a line. Consider them prototypes and tell the management IT should implement them (it should be easy, with such an expensive BI tool, right?). They will hate you, of course. Do you mind?
You are a naive if you think that these dashboards will change anything. They will not. Corporate culture changes slowly and there are many misconceptions about charts. If, in spite of everything, you like to work there, try to find a good sponsor in the management team and work with her. It’s your only chance.
You need some good resources, so here are some of the best. Read Edward Tufte’s and Stephen Few’s books. They are not optional. Subscribe to leading blogs. Jon, Chandoo, Mike, Daniel or Debra can help you a lot. Don’t let yourself to be distracted from your goal by all those great visualizations you keep stumbling upon. And, shameless plug, you can get access to my Excel dashboards tutorial.
Turning Off the Crystal Ball
My crystal ball also tells me that you are a male, in your late twenties or thirties, graduate school educated and work for a fairly large organization, in marketing, sales or finance (not IT, God forbid!). If you are a manager you manage a small department, five people at most. Is this correct? Please don’t tell me that you are a little old lady with too much spare time… you aren’t, are you? I’m still training my clairvoyance skills and I may be misreading some signs.
So, if this is not you, who are you? And what do you need Excel dashboard for? You can undress in the comments below… And if you are not comfortable with that, you can start by “I have this friend…”.
[Update: There are great comments below, so why don't you join the conversation? And check out Chandoo’s post too.)