During its analyst conference in Athens, Greece, SAS revealed details of a new business visualisation capability—SAS Visual Analytics Explorer. Adding business focused visualisation functionality to its extensive product line is, we believe, a good thing—it promises to bring analytics to a mainstream audience allowing them to unlock insights from data quickly and clearly. Although SAS is well positioned to take advantage of the trend towards data visualisation, the company has a lot to prove if it wants to change the image and perception that its software is purely for the “analytics elite”.
Over turning common perceptions
SAS is well known for its sophisticated statistical and predictive analytics capabilities, from which is has forged a market-leading position. However, success with mainstream business audiences has remained a little more elusive. Whereas SAS’s analytics offerings have typically been the domain of IT, PhDs and statistical aficionados who work with specialised statistical methods and sophisticated analytic algorithms to uncover hidden patterns and trends, making inroads with more conventional users requires a different approach—especially since ease of use and the corresponding reduced reliance on IT are seen as critical success factors driving uptake.
This is a factor also reflected in general adoption patterns for BI and analytics. While demand remains strong for these capabilities; cost, complexity and the skills and expertise required still remain as barriers to wider market uptake. We believe part of the challenge comes from putting analytics in the hands of those users who can are best placed to meaningful link results to the business challenges or opportunities being faced.
Unlocking insights with data visualisation
Part of the problems lies with the disconnect between back room analysts who are adept at advanced analytics, and those responsible for actioning the data. It’s worth remembering that no matter how good your analytic capabilities may be there will always be a requirement for a business person to interpret patterns, decide which patterns warrant further investigation and translate these new findings into actionable insights. This is where the analysis process sometimes breaks down. What’s often required is someone with the domain expertise to act as a go-between, someone who is able to understand the data and impart these insights to others so they can be actioned.
While spreadsheets are often seen as the tool of choice for these business analysts, specialist visual exploration tools are fast becoming an increasingly valid option. As their name suggests visual analytic tools turn complex data into pictures or visualisations enabling business orientated users to work interactively with the data, query it and be guided in the analysis process. Not only does this lessen the need for analysts to be skilled in using powerful analysis tools but it also reduces the possibility that users may accidentally modify or delete the data.
Attracting a new business audience with Visual Analytics Explorer
SAS’ expansion into business visualisation is not surprising, given its vested interest in widening the audience of its analytic capabilities. On first glance Visual Analytics Explorer provides a solid set of capabilities. It has a visually appealing interface that allows users to navigate through data applying visualisations and statistical techniques within a business orientated analysis and exploratory environment. While the core functionality is there, the big challenge for SAS in driving uptake is to ensure it is recognised as the analysis tool of choice for business users, not only for high end advanced users. These users are typically pre-disposed to slick, intuitive interfaces and are more obsessive about ease-of-use, something that SAS has not been renowned for in the past.
That said, Visual Analytics Explorer isn’t the only initiative SAS is pursuing as part of this aim; the company’s increasing focus on industry and functionally aligned business solutions and new capabilities such as rapid predictive modeller are helping expose analytics to different business audiences. At the same time we believe SAS needs to be clearer about how Visual Analytics Explorer fits with, and is positioned against, other capabilities within its portfolio such as Visual Data Discovery and JMP, its statistical discovery software.
Notwithstanding these challenges SAS will also be playing in an increasingly busy marketplace. Other vendors such as QlikTech, Tableau and TIBCO Spotfire have well-established data visualisation capabilities. Likewise, bigger players such as IBM Cognos are working on visual discovery and analysis offerings in their labs whereas Microstrategy has recently released Visual Insight, a business user visualisation capability, as part of its 9.2 release. If SAS can translate its success in analytics into a visual form then these players are likely to face tough competition.
Visual Analytics Explorer is due to be released in Q3 2011.