Today, Prof. Martin J. Eppler, a knowledge visualization expert and professor of communication management at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, provides us with his insights on the benefits of knowledge visualization applied to business and management.
Prof. Martin Eppler has been a leading researcher over the last 10 years in providing research-based evidence on the benefits of knowledge visualization in management and business development. He has developed his own, and co-authored many visual methods and reference works (articles, books, software solutions, interactive visuals, e-learning platforms) aimed at making management practice more collaborative, creative and effective via visualizing knowledge. He comes from a management science background and has studied in Boston, Paris, St. Gallen, and Geneva. In his PhD, he studied coping strategies of managers when dealing with information overload. He found out that many solved the complexity challenge by using visualisation. His post-doctorate research pushed investigations further into how visualisation helps improve information quality and speeds up knowledge communication among experts and decision makers. This eventually opened the way to researching what has become his obsession, i.e. how visualizing knowledge can radically improve team processes in management, from idea generation, problem solving, decision making, to strategic planning.
Overwhelming evidence (qualitative and quantitative) is building up through research projects worldwide on the benefits of using visual thinking to improve business management i.e. solving problems, generating new ideas or managing dilemmas.
However, to increase adoption and use of visual thinking and knowledge visualization in the business arena three kinds of actions are needed: (1) making visual thinking concepts and practices better known and understood, (2) starting visual work from the existing practice of managers (especially improving idea generation) and (3) building trust and (self-) confidence within companies to try it out and stick with it.
1) What triggered your interest into the world of visual thinking (from a personal and/or professional point of view)?
From management science to knowledge visualisation
My interest and motivation to develop knowledge visualisation initially grew out of the frustration of not finding adequate solutions to address the information overload problem in management. When studying the phenomenon of information overload in leadership contexts, visualization came up as a useful solution. The same happened in a second, large-scale research project on knowledge communication between experts and managers: visualization helped to improve knowledge sharing dramatically. So over the last 10 years I have developed a research program that aims at improving key management tasks through visualization, and this in a range of areas, such as decision making, creativity, sales, strategy, and knowledge management. The results have been very promising and encourage us to continue further along this path.
2) Which types of issues / situations /pb do you address via knowledge visualisation?
Over the last ten years, we have examined the following managerial situations through our experiments, case studies, surveys and action research:
- Experience sharing in and among project teams: How can visualization accelerate and improve the learning in and among projects?
- Experience sharing in strategy execution: How can visualization improve knowledge sharing about strategy implementation problems?
- Idea Generation in business model innovation: How can visual creativity techniques enable management teams to radically innovate their business model?
- Divergent strategy workshops: How can managers use a new generation of strategizing tools to improve their strategic dialogues and their strategic planning?
- Financial Sales practices: How can visualization improve the sales experience in one-to-one sales sessions?
- Innovation practices in Strategic Alliance: How can we enable representatives from different companies to understand their respective competencies and jointly develop innovations based on their complementarities?
- Knowledge Sharing in Risk Management: How can visualization support the collaboration in managing risks more effectively?
In all of these contexts, we looked at how the use of interactive visualization improves the quality of the communication process and of its outcomes.
3. Can you tell us a bit more on your current research projects in knowledge visualisation?
Right now, I am working on two new research projects, the first one is called DYNAGRAMS, the second one Creability. In the first one we examine dynamic diagramming in strategic planning and in the second one ad-hoc creativity in group work.
Dynamic diagramming is the practice of using visual structures and associated categories to help managers resolve difficult dilemmas, share experiences more systematically, and make better joint decisions.
What I call dynagrams are flexible and useful information containers such as 2×2 matrices, Venn diagrams, Ishikawa diagrams, or triangles. They are great for clarity and helping choosing between alternatives for example. Other dynagrams can be more complex and can mix qualitative and quantitative information. We have invented a number of new diagrams, for example the dilemagram to resolve dilemmas or the sophiagram to crystallize experiences.
I would like to emphasize that although such matrices, Venn, Euler and similar diagrams are also used in our book “Sketching at work” I do not consider sketching such diagrams as diagramming. In fact “Sketching at work” deals more with facilitating the thinking process than seeking a definite output or picture. Sketching leaves ambiguity, thrives on open thinking, and usually starts on an empty page, whereas diagrams are much pre-given, more clear-cut and can deal with a greater amount of complexity than sketches.
Visual creativity in group work is the topic of the Creability project. Based on a survey in which we found that most managers still only use Brainstorming to generate ideas (in spite of its many known drawbacks), we have collaborated with different organizations to develop better creativity techniques. The project is now coming to completion and our initial belief that visualization has a lot to offer for creativity clearly proofed true. We have invented a number of effective visual creativity techniques and we have shown that they can outperform brainstorming consistently. Our ‘flagship’ technique is called “Paths to Success” or P2S and uses the main insights of creativity research from the last 60 years in a simple visual framework. Other new creativity techniques we developed are the Iteration Spiral, the Dyadic Mind Map, and the Idea Blueprint,
4. How do managers get into adopting and using knowledge visualisation? Which levers and obstacles do you observe?
We are very often asked to demonstrate the quantitative benefits of using knowledge visualisation. For this purpose we have designed and run numerous experiments with real-life managers. Having had literally hundreds of managers participate in our experiments we can now show what it means in terms of process and outcome to either work with visualization or without it and this in a range of team tasks. Specifically, working with visualization leads to higher productivity, better recall and learning, and also to more constructive and collaborative team processes with less coordination losses. This becomes especially apparent when you compare the standard ways of working like a flipchart or overhead-projected slides with interactive visualization software like Lets-focus® that makes use of dynamic diagrams or visual metaphors.
However, you need to be aware of intercultural differences: In our research, we have conducted visualization experiments in different cultural regions, for example Finland, India, Singapore, China, Switzerland, and South America, and we found that some visuals work better in some cultures and less in others (they always outperform pure bullet-pointed text though). For example: Asians react better (cognitively ad emotionally) to visual metaphors than Europeans who respond better to diagrams.
5) How would you like the use / diversity of visual thinking evolve within the next 20 years or so (your best dream come true)?
It is paramount to get the evidence out on the benefits of using visual thinking methods and tools in day to day management. Probably the most efficient way forward is to start with what manager use widely and need immediately, namely better idea generation techniques. That is a quick win. It is also important to make it easier to find out about visual thinking. Here we already provide some tools for managers to make it easier to adopt visual thinking, for example our periodic table of visualization methods at www.visual-literacy.org or our visual CollabCards.
Most importantly, visual thinking requires trust from the top hierarchy and within management units that it is a useful, efficient and easy to handle tool. It means readiness and curiosity from potential users.
Our track record with as wide a range of users as start-ups, multinationals, police forces, the Military, NGOs and international organization is promising. To help streamline the high-tech end of using visualisation tools we are developing an iPad and USB stick version of our software. By the way, our Let’s Focus software was the result of a US$ 1 million investment. It is the leading software in this area and is being used by many big firms and organizations, executive coaches, trainers, and even some church ministers use it to clarify their thinking.
However, we still need to get more SMEs to adopt it. The challenge also remains to reach beyond early adopters and make visual thinking a company-wide management tool and resource.
It is important to underline that visual thinking and knowledge visualisation can both benefit from low tech (paper and pen) and high tech (touch screens for example). Which to use depends on the context and issues at hand.
Sketching at Work: A guide to Visual Problem Solving and Communication for Managers, Sales professionals, Consultants, Trainers and Facilitators; University of St Gallen, Martin J. Eppler and Roland Pfister, 2010.
Management-Atlas, Management-Methoden für den Arbeitsalltag , Hanser Verlag, Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, 2011
Some published papers
- Sabrina Bresciani and Martin J. Eppler, The Benefits of Synchronous Collaborative Information Visualization: Evidence from an Experimental Evaluation, IEEE Transactions on visualization and computer graphics Vol. 15, No. 6, Nov/dec 2009
- Alice Comice and Martin J. Eppler, Assessing the Impact of Visual Facilitation on Inter-Organizational collaboration: An Experimental Study, Journal of Universal Computer Science, vol. 17, no. 10 (2011), 1430-1454
- Martin J. Eppler and Ken W. Platts, Visual Strategizing, The Systematic Use of Visualization in the Strategic-Planning Process, Long Range Planning 42 (2009) 42-74
More references here.
To find out more on Prof. Eppler’s work and visual thinking resources: