Improve IT-business communications with visualization techniques

How visualization techniques can help when explaining IT to the business, for example, using heat map visualization to facilitate discussions during board meetings.

running faucet by steve johnson
Credit: Steve Johnson

How many times has something like this happened to you? You’re at a board meeting and it is budget time. As always, IT spending is viewed with some suspicion as for most people it is a mysterious bucket. After all, IT is a cost center, impacting the “General & Administrative” expenses and the effect of IT projects on top and bottom line growth are rarely measured, and it is hard to do so in any case.

To top it off, in the last such meeting the huge cost of a 3 mega bit network connection for a new branch office, when they all had 100 mega bit connections at home that cost less than 1 percent of the quote for the branch office.

Explaining IT and its costs to the business has long been one of the greatest challenges for the CIO. Avoiding the use of mind boggling jargon, while getting a message across and explaining the necessity of investments is challenging at the best at times, but even more so when half the board don’t speak your native language.

In these situations, and in other cases where I’ve had to explain IT plans to the business, I have had great success by using different visualization techniques that cut across language and cultural barriers, and make it easier for people to understand the stakes involved.

taffic light alexandre normand Alexandre Normand

From RAGs to riches

The first approach that many people will take in visualizing the state of IT is often going to be inspired by project experience, in particular Red-Amber-Green (RAG) traffic lights and charts.

Red-Amber-Green Afzal Ballim

There are a number of problems with this. For one, the most common type of color blindness is red-green blindness. About 10 percent of Caucasian males suffer from this, with the figures being about have that for Asians and Africans. Imagine if up to 1/10th of your audience couldn’t see the difference between your good and bad areas.

A deeper problem is that the associations that people have with these colors can be too extreme. Even in project terms it is less than evident what the colors mean, but often red means something that requires steering committee intervention, amber is an issue that may require it in the future, while green is okay.

The reaction I’ve had from board members is closer to green means we don’t need to worry, yellow means you’re doing a lousy job, and red means we should fire you. As Stacey Barr says in her article on KPI traffic lights: “Be honest: Don’t you see much more excuse-making, finger-pointing and symptom-treating than you do fundamental business process redesign, in response to red traffic lights?”

So, if using RAGs can lead to you wearing rags, what type of visualization can be helpful?

successful meeting Nguyen Hung Vu

Warming up the boardroom

In my view, a key problem with traffic lights is that they are too polarizing and do not give enough leeway in displaying data because there are too few possibilities to pick from. In this article I’m not going to discuss the type of data you may want to display. I will do that in a future article. Suppose, though, that you want to draw attention to areas of IT that need particular attention.

There can be a number of reasons why you may want to reinforce a particular sector of IT. It could be that you are taking on a new application, and your team will need to be trained on it, or you may need to hire in expertise. Another reason could be that while your team is satisfactory in a given area (say, managing the corporate website), you could contribute to top or bottom line growth by improving the team’s performance (maybe the company is about to launch a new customer purchase portal).

In the first case, using a traffic light, you might color the area red or amber, but red might really alarm the board. You are likely, therefore, to pick amber. In the second case, if you use green for the current situation it’s more difficult to explain why you need to improve upon that state. If you pick amber, then you’re not making a difference between one area where you have little proficiency, and another where you are proficient but could add more to the business by going beyond simply being proficient.

So you need more states (and more colors), but how many states and what colors?

Let’s look first at how many states you want to have. As the example, above, shows, only having three states is very limiting. Luckily, there has been a lot of research on this subject. Take a look at the definition of Likert scales, where you measure things along a scale, generally with positive and negative ends. Typically, such scales have between 4 and 7 items. An important choice to make is whether the scale is odd or even. An odd scale gives a neutral zone in the middle. This is good when you are trying to highlight a few areas where you would like change to occur. An odd scale is called a “forced choice” scale because it forces you to pick in the middle. These are normally used when you are trying to get a decision made between a few choices.

My choice, in general has been for a five item scale, called a “heat map” because it reflects the notion of hot spots. Maybe controversially, I eliminate green from the list of colors, to avoid red-green confusion. A typical scale for me would, then, look like this:

heatmap scale Afzal Ballim

Putting it together, the following could be a picture of the state of IT now:

it heatmap p1a AFZAL BALLIM

and where we want it to be in 24 months.

Now we’ve got an idea of the results of visualization, in the next article I’ll discuss what type of data can be presented this way to the business, what types of measurements are meaningful and how to arrive and them.

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