Digital visualisation: making you the master of the universe

May 01, 2020
Kevin Lynch and John Munnelly explain why data preparation and data visualisation are the most important future communication tools at a Chartered Accountant's disposal.

The volume of data generated is expected to increase 20-fold by 2025. With more companies migrating entire systems and infrastructure to the cloud, the ability to monitor, store, track and analyse vast amounts of information is becoming increasingly easy and, more importantly, cheaper. 

Yet the magnitude of this increase poses a challenge, not only in the technical management of the data but also in how businesses are able to investigate and interpret patterns in these vast data repositories. This challenge is recognised by many firms – the National Analytics Maturity Report found that, of the top 100 member organisations in the Analytics Institute, 78% saw analytics as having a real impact on strategy, and 69% planned on increasing their spend in analytics. There is an ever-growing preference within firms towards information self-service, where every team member has access to the data they need to make informed decisions on a daily basis and is expected to be capable of finding the value in the data.

Data culture

To materialise this preference for self-service, companies are investing in systems as well as its people. Data literacy is central to a functioning data culture; it forms a shared language between staff that allows for collaboration and consensus, enabling data-driven decision making. It is necessary for teams to be able to analyse data, interpret the patterns they find, and visualise these insights to effectively communicate them to their stakeholders.

This is, however, not a trivial challenge for companies – developing data literacy can be difficult. McKinsey found in a recent survey that 92% of companies were failing to scale analytics. For the 8% that were successful, building the right foundations of data, technologies, and people was central. 

Data literacy is becoming a requisite skill from new hires to managing partners, and by learning these skills you are equipping yourselves with the tools you need to utilise self-service analytics effectively.

Connected reporting

Using the concepts of connected reporting, candidates should be able to use Alteryx and Tableau to access information from source systems, build automated workflows to clean and prepare data for use in interactive and insightful dashboards.

With Alteryx, they can connect to their data wherever it is, clean it and structure it using a straightforward drag and drop canvas. With Tableau, they can get clear and focused updates for KPIs with the flexibility to always ask more detailed questions of the data.

By engaging with the tools early and learning not only how to use the tools, but how to leverage them to drive business value, candidates are positioning themselves to have an expertise that is in huge demand.

Visualisation as communication

A large portion of the course is focused on data visualisation, which is not a topic historically associated with accountancy. Data visualisation is, however, a form of communication, a means of making complex concepts understandable and intuitive for an audience.

For many people, finance models and metrics are confusing and opaque. By training accountants to communicate their work, we are enabling them to increase their reach and impact on businesses. It is often said the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place, but if candidates are unable to convey the importance of their analyses, then the impact is greatly devalued. The best accountants are great communicators and visualisation is a tool to aid communication and insight. 

Guardians of the galaxy

The typical delineations of traditionally organised company functions are evaporating in the 21st century. Finance departments are having an increasingly wider and more important role sitting across many functions of the business, and it makes sense – accountants are seen as the guardians of a company’s assets. Data is an asset, and extracting timely, relevant insights will make the difference between future success or failure. 

The practical element of this syllabus topic area, i.e. the licenses for Alteryx and Tableau, should provide candidates with the capstone of learning in this area.

For those who have logged in and experimented with some of the apps’ functions: well done. Continue your exciting journey of discovery. For those of you who have not logged in yet: we strongly urge you to do so. You will get a rich experience of the possibilities presented and, at the same time, copper fasten the principles. 

When assessing exam indicators in this topic area, it might be useful to borrow a framework from elsewhere in the syllabus. Candidates should consider the S.M.A.R.T. acronym:

  • Does the problem call for a specific analytics solution or could it be enhanced by one?
  • Can the outputs of the problem be measured?
  • Is the solution achievable from a financial/risk/planning/strategic perspective?
  • Is analytics a realistic solution in the case being presented?
  • Can the analytics solution be delivered on a timely, ongoing basis?
As a handy rule of thumb, a potential analytics solution should answer yes to each of those questions almost immediately. This will allow candidates to tease out the specifics of the problem to be solved. 

Examination indicators will ask if candidates can identify whether value can be created through the analytics solution and whether indicators require a critique of the status quo including deployed solutions, identifying problems, weaknesses, or opportunities. 

Candidates should also bear in mind that skills such as scepticism, risk assessment and linking to wider strategic initiatives are equally important considerations in assessing the business case for analytics. Those candidates who can link the nuances and facts of the case to their responses are the ones who will be successful. 

Enjoy your studies and discovery of the software tools. 

John Munnelly is the Exam and Syllabus Development Executive at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Kevin Lynch is the Chief Technical Officer for The Information Lab Ireland.