The Blind Men and the Elephant: Storytelling with Business Intelligence

by | Jul 8, 2015 | General BI

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We hear a lot in the business intelligence (BI) world about the value of storytelling, and how certain BI platforms can help you tell a story with your data. That all sounds well and good (who doesn’t love a good story?), but the truth is that multiple people in an organization can tell multiple, conflicting stories with data. How do you know which story is true, and which one is just fiction? Is there one version which is right and the others all wrong? Is each story just kinda, sorta true? Is there some larger truth that no one is seeing?

This dilemma reminds me of a parable about the blind men and the elephant that my dad told me and my siblings growing up. As one of 11 kids in my family, my siblings and I frequently could not agree on anything! My dad felt this story was a valuable allegory that would allow us to see the importance of considering everyone’s point of view in order to get to a common understanding and see the larger truth.

Tweet: The Blind Men and the Elephant: Storytelling with Business Intelligence

In the story, there were six blind men who were each asked to describe an elephant. Each man felt a different part of the elephant, and therefore, had very different descriptions of what the elephant was. For example, one man felt the tail and described the elephant as a rope. One man felt the belly and described the elephant as a wall. One man felt the trunk and said the elephant was like a tree. While each man was correct in his own way, none could see the overall truth.

The ramifications of “stories” in decision-making

The story of the Blind Men and the Elephant is not unlike what’s going on in businesses today. Each knowledge worker may have a different version of the truth – the problem with these different stories that have been created with data is that they severely impact people’s ability to make smart decisions. Either workers can’t agree on the facts which leads to decision stalls (in today’s fast-moving markets, if you can’t decide, you fail!), or they do make decisions, but they are made upon erroneous assumptions.

In order to solve this problem, organizations need to focus on discovering the truth rather than just telling a great story. A recent Aberdeen Group report titled, “Collaborative Data Governance: Peeling the Red Tape off Data Discovery,” defined the type of solution that organizations need. A collaborative data governance solution satisfies the goals of IT, assuring data is accurate, complete and secure, as well as the goals of users who want to freely explore complete datasets to gain the right level of insight.

The right solution should include 3 things:

  1. The ability to define clear business rules. A business intelligence solution is only as good as the business rules that power it. A comprehensive solution should have a library of prepackaged business rules and definitions that you can apply, as well as have the ability to customize based on your unique needs. According to the Aberdeen report, “Organizations with collaborative data governance were able to obtain pertinent information within the decision window 75% of the time.”
  2. Integrated data sources. In order to understand the big picture, you need to be able integrate data from different parts of your organization in order to discover meaningful correlations. Many BI platforms limit integration, and as a result, their users have an incomplete view. Aberdeen’s research addresses these pitfalls, saying, “Those without collaborative data governance are forced to base 48% more decisions on incomplete information or gut instincts.” This sounds like our blind men only examining one part of the elephant. To avoid this, make sure that you have a comprehensive solution with prebuilt connectors to sources so data across the entire enterprise can be aggregated and analyzed.
  3. Substance over style. Don’t get me wrong, data visualization is important. But don’t be fooled by flashy graphics when there’s really nothing underneath the hood. Users often find that once they start engaging with the data points, they can’t get to the “why” behind them. And that’s when stories start getting made up. According to the Aberdeen stats, users collaborating with IT over data governance are “59% more likely to be satisfied with their access to the data needed to support decisions.”

In the version of “The Blind Men and the Elephant” that I’m familiar with (by John Godfrey Saxe), there never is a resolution and each man steadfastly believes his description of the elephant is correct. Fortunately, when it comes to business intelligence, organizations do have the option today of finding that truth rather than just telling a story. They just need to find the right BI platform.

If you’d like to read the story, Amazon carries a copy of the 1963 version I grew up with. The pictures are fantastic. Here’s a link: The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe (Author), Paul Galdone (Illustrator).

Also read the research:

Rose Curtis

You may also like