An Interview with Author Phil Simon



Author image, thephilsimon – CC BY 2.0 


Today, we have an interview with author Phil Simon. His new book, The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions, explores the rapidly emerging “Visual Organization.”


In Simon’s eyes, we are seeing the rise of enterprises that require professionals to focus on data discovery and exploration rather than traditional reporting. Read on to find out more about this sea-change in quotidian data science.

Why did you write The Visual Organization?

Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape, once famously said, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” I love that quote, I thought a great deal about it while writing the book.

Barksdale is probably happy right now. Today more than ever, professionals are being asked to argue their cases and make their decisions based on data. A new, data-oriented mindset is permeating the business world. Blame or credit Google or Nate Silver. For instance, journalists, drycleaners, and football teams today are representing data in interesting ways, a subject I’ve discussed frequently on my blog and with colleagues and clients.

Next, I believe that the book fills a vacuum. I reviewed many of the current books on data visualization. While enormously helpful, they tend to be how-to books. As such, they emphasize theory over practice. The title of my book is no accident. I am unaware of an existing text that examines how actual organizations, departments, and people have used contemporary dataviz tools to move the needle. This is particularly true with dataviz. As I discovered researching The Visual Organization, there aren’t too many original, insightful, and vendor-neutral case studies on the topic.

This is a big problem. Far too many business books lack case studies—and suffer as a result. When done right, case studies can be enormously helpful, as they provide real-world business context and valuable lessons. The Visual Organization takes a “show me, don’t tell me” approach.

Finally, and this is a purely selfish reason, I enjoy the writing process. At the end of months and months of work, it feels pretty good to hold your book in your hand.

Is The Visual Organization similar to your last book, Too Big to Ignore: The Business Case for Big Data? And how does it differ from other data visualization books?

There’s definitely a bit of overlap, but these are very different books. Too Big to Ignore External link serves as, what I believe, is a useful and jargon-free overview of a very important subject: Big Data. I detail the most prominent technologies, applications, and tools. Among the most important questions that book answers is, “How are organizations finding the signal in the noise that is Big Data External link?”

That’s a really big question, one that necessitated much more breadth than depth. As such, Too Big to Ignoreprovides overviews of Hadoop, NoSQL, different statistical methods, natural language processing External link, data visualization, and other Big Data tools. Many books have been—and are being—written about each of those technologies.

The Visual Organization is different on two fronts. First, it is much deeper than it is wide. Second, it is unlike existing dataviz books by Nathan Yau, Stephen Few, and Edward Tufte. The Visual Organization is fundamentally about how progressive organizations today are using a wide array of dataviz tools to ask better questions of their data—and make better business decisions. With a data-friendly mindset, companies like Netflix, Wedgies, eBay, the University of Texas, and Autodesk are garnering amazing insights into their operations, users, customers, products, and employees.

You start the book with the story of the Tableau IPO? What did it signify to you?

In short, the arrival of the Visual Organization. Think about it. One year after the Facebook IPO bombed, Tableau’s stock skyrocketed 63 percent External link. Here is a company that does one thing: dataviz. That’s it. I found the contrast to the Facebook IPO riveting, not to mention endemic of a much larger trend.

You write about the recent proliferation of dataviz tools. Can you elaborate here?

IBM Cognos, SAS, and other enterprise BI stalwarts are still around, but they are no longer the only game in town. Today, an organization need not spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to get going with dataviz. These new tools have become progressively more powerful and user-friendly over the last decade. Long gone are the days in which IT needed to generate reports for non-technical employees, a process that lamentably still exists in many organizations. They have made it easier than ever for employees to quickly discover new things in increasingly large datasets. Examples include, Tableau, Vizify, D3.js, R External link, and myriad others

Yeah, but don’t most organizations already “do” dataviz?

Sure, to some extent. A simple Excel graph or chart certainly qualifies as rudimentary dataviz, but it’s unlikely to promote true data discovery. Many of the interactive dataviz tools I discuss in the book are far better suited for this critical type of exploration.

More generally, many CXOs are paying lip service to Big Data—and the importance of data in general. In my view, though, relatively few are truly harnessing its power. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. I’d include, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Netflix, among others. If you peel back the onion, you’ll see that employees at these organizations are doing a great deal more than creating simple graphs, bar charts, and pivot tables. Employees here are interacting with their data, learning new things about their businesses in the process. That’s a major theme of the book.

Any advice on becoming a Visual Organization?

Buy and read the book. Beyond that, remember the famous words of Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Tools matter, but an organization’s culture often plays a bigger role in its success. The same is true here.

Also, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Sure, there’s low-hanging fruit. Remember that Google, like Rome, was not built in a day.

Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of six management books, including the forthcoming The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, Wired, CNN, NBC, CNBC, Inc. Magazine, BusinessWeek, The Huffington Post, Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, ReadWriteWeb, and many other sites.