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Nurturing Data Visualization

How are you growing data viz capabilities at your organization?

· data viz,Change Management,Networks

Organizational change can be tough.

John Kotter, master of change management, writes about his eight step process for leading change. It doesn't promise instant results, but instead speaks to the long process of starting with a vision, building out the right coalitions and networks, showing quick wins, and eventually getting to sustained organizational change.

Personally, my favorite step is "build a volunteer army," which speaks to how powerful I think having a network of connected, mobilized champions for data visualization can be within an organization. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak on the HC3 Innovation: Data Visualization webinar about how to nurture your own skill building and strengthening organizational data visualization capabilities alongside three other data visualization experts from Qlik, Jhpiego, and Palladium Group, who each spoke about specific examples of creating data viz products within projects.

Around the same time, two of my favorite writers on data visualization - Jon Schwabish over at Policy Viz and Cole Naussbaumer Knaflic at Storytelling with Data - launched a conversation around the same topic: how can we effectively create change and promote adoption of great data visualization practices within our own organizations? Both Jon and Cole are sought after speakers in this domain, and made excellent (and realistic) suggestions around actions you can take as a data viz enthusiast within your organization to create change.

I'd encourage you to read both of their reflections, linked above, and wanted to add two ideas I shared in my presentation that hit on long-term considerations for building, sustaining, and nurturing your organizational viz capabilities.

1. Connect staff from different skill domains in a network focused on data visualization.

Much like this external network, we have an internal network of data visualization enthusiasts within JSI. With around 300 members, the network includes more than 10% of our staff around the world and includes members who work across various functions (evaluation, design, program management, developers) and locations (US and field based offices). Through the network, staff can share ideas, tools, and resources around data visualization design. In addition, we use the network to directly promote training and learning opportunities.

Offering this kind of internal professional network also makes a statement that information design is a domain with its own best practices, tools, thought leaders, and more worthy of conversation and sharing. When I was going through my public health degree, not one class focused on how to effectively present information. In my work at JSI (and with the Data Viz for Development community), I hope to expose more global health and development professionals to the best practices of information design and promote it as a discipline, rather than an afterthought in the final formatting of a report or presentation.

2. Hire for data visualization skills in the roles where they are required for success.

We routinely ask for writing samples when we're hiring technical team members (even if their job title doesn't say "writer") because writing reasonably well is necessary for success. Today, across skill levels and organizational roles, more people than ever have to analyze and present data to decisionmakers in meaningful ways, whether in a slide deck, report, or interactive format.

While it's unlikely that every new program officer or technical advisor will also be one of the magical unicorns at the intersection of design / analysis / programming, could we consider testing basic visualization skills the same way we test writing skills? If routinely producing charts and graphs is part of the role someone is being hired for, let's hire for new team members who bring those skills into our organization and perhaps fill gaps in our teams.

This isn't to say the solution to not having a deep bench of data viz experts on hand is a hiring blitz. Don't neglect the staff you have (especially the ones who join your network and show interest in learning, see #1 above). If viz skills are routinely in demand but not widespread across your organization, consider how to upskill staff through trainings, workshops, and apprenticeship opportunities to work directly with an internal coach who excels at visualization design. I've found that workshops and training sessions only go so far: hands on mentoring over the long term, where you have somewhere to go for feedback on your work, is one of the most effective ways to build visualization design skills.

By emphasizing the importance of these skills for our team members and new hires, we're not only setting up our staff up for success in their current role, but positioning them for growth and opportunity in the future. The Economist shared in a January special report on learning and earning, highlighting the remarkable increase in demand for data visualization skills (as wide-ranging as they might be), which is a trend I wouldn't expect to change anytime soon. Let's nurture these capabilities both in our own work and within our organizations.

Share your experiences.

There's an ongoing conversation in the comments on Policy Viz and Storytelling with Data, and from the Data Viz webinar I referenced earlier over on Springboard. Join the conversation, and share what's worked well for you if you've successfully created organizational change around data visualization, or about efforts that fell flat. Sometimes we can learn just as much from failure as success, and see opportunities for testing an idea in a new environment where it may be just what another group needs.

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