Tableau chief product officer Francois Ajenstat spoke with iTWire during the company’s TC22 conference running this week, explaining Tableau customers of all sizes around the world love using the product’s advanced analytics to fuel impactful, data-driven decisions.
While it's known that data-driven organisations are more successful, the reality is many companies are not driven by data, and their employees are not able to access or engage with the data they need to make informed decisions. In fact, while so much more data than ever before is being collected this has the effect of creating data chaos for organisations that want and need access to data in more places and are unable to get that data or derive meaning from that data.
It's a problem Tableau takes seriously and takes head-on with its announcements this week.
"Tableau's mission is to help people see and use data, to democratise it and put it in the hands of people who can work with it and use it,” Ajenstat said, speaking from Las Vegas where the company’s Tableau Conference 2022 - or TC22 for short - is being held as a face-to-face event. “It’s always been a special kind of event. Unlike most tech conferences, TC is more like a rock concert. It’s a gathering of people who have found their calling, their tribe, their community,” he said. “It’s special to be back for the first time since then pandemic and feels like a reunion, like a homecoming with the community.”
Yet, Ajenstat explains, “so many areas of data have been out of reach.” One is data science, which offers “incredible innovation,” he says, “but has been for the specialists.”
Tableau has already worked to democratise data to make it available to a greater number of people but acknowledges data is still intimidating for many people. Here, Ajenstat reminds us, that not all companies are tech companies. For instance, Feeding America is a tremendous non-profit organisation that aims to ensure people have access to food and supplies, and that food banks are full and able to give to the needy. It’s an important cause and one that serves the community. Yet, Feeding America is not a tech business and its people are good, smart, determined, compassionate, humanitarian folk who need speed and agility to reach food banks, manage logistics and bring aid to under-served populations.
The next generation of Tableau, announced this week at TC22, is for them. It’s for you, for me, and for anyone who wants to bring meaning out of their data no matter their degree of data literacy, the field their business is in, and whether they have access to data scientists and analysts or not.
The three major announcements are Tableau Cloud, Einstein Model Builder, and Data Stories.
While cloud computing is commonplace and here to stay, it’s still an emerging area in the data space, Ajenstat said. However, “what we are seeing increasingly is that as more data goes into the cloud more customers are putting analytics into the cloud also. We’re now seeing more than 70% of our customers starting in the cloud, and the largest enterprises going all-out in the cloud.”
As such, Tableau Online has been rebranded Tableau Cloud and includes new innovations to boost productivity by delivering intelligent, powerful and easy-to-use analytical tools to help anyone uncover insights and confidently make data-driven decisions. “It brings in more administration, more governance, and more accelerators,” Ajenstat said, with accelerators being pre-built ready-made solutions for various industries and use cases that help create engagement through deep integrations with Slack and other areas of SalesForce.
As part of the launch, Tableau is working with Snowflake to provide an extended promotional trial which includes Tableau Cloud licenses for Snowflake customers and, subject to program requirements, Snowflake credits upon conversion to a Tableau Cloud customer.
Einstein Model Builder
When Tableau joined SalesForce two and a half years ago, “one of the first things we did was find SalesForce tech we could bring to Tableau,” Ajenstat said. A big one was SalesForce’s Einstein Discover - an enterprise-scale tool bringing billions upon billions of recommendations to SalesForce users each and every day, recommending emails and actions that SalesForce users could take up to enhance business.
Tableau has now extended Einstein to power predictions inside Tableau, aiding its users to move from the “what happened” of data to the “what might happen, and what can I do about it?” Ajenstat said.
Einstein Model Builder will connect with SalesForce flow to enable automation and workflows to trigger business processes from an analysis. On a practical level, this allows organisations like Feeding America to perform scenario planning - such as how the organisation would need to react if there was a hurricane or flood in part of the country.
What is data if it doesn’t surface actionable insights and meaning? It doesn’t matter how visually pleasing a dashboard is if it is not fundamentally speaking the language of people. “If you can’t bring data to the people you haven’t reached your potential,” Ajenstat said.
Here comes Data Stories, a hugely compelling feature and one iTWire loves. With merely a few clicks your dashboards and visuals can be enhanced with an articulate and insightful panel of text with an AI-driven story bringing to life what the numbers and graphs say.
Ajenstat demonstrated it to iTWire, and while Ajenstat is obviously a tech-oriented data-driven C-suite executive, it still must be said the feature was so straightforward even a CEO could use it.
He presented a typical dashboard - sales figures by region over a period of time. However, it’s no doubt your experience, and it's iTWire’s own experience that such a graph only conveys so much. Then, with a click, Ajenstat introduced a Data Story pane to the dashboard outlining what it meant and what was driving the outcome.
For instance, "Each of the four entities increased from January 2014 to December 2017 with East rising the most (4,505%) and South rising the least (63%) over that time frame” and “the sum of sales experienced cyclicality, repeating every cycle about every four periods. There was also a pattern of smaller cycles that repeated about every three periods” and “East and West had a moderate positive correlation, suggesting that as one (East) increases, the other (West) generally does too, or vice versa.”
Each point illuminated what the numbers meant, and importantly, provided insights that one might otherwise not glean. It showed trends and relationships that may be previously unrealised.
With a few more clicks Ajenstat demonstrated the story was linked to user selections; you could highlight any particular part of a graph to drill into what was happening there, or you could filter by different items - much as you’d expect linked visuals to react to changes in each other, so too the story responded to what else you did on screen.
Further, Ajenstat showed with a little more customisation you could enhance how the story told itself. For instance, “SUM(Sales)” could be replaced with “Total sales”, or qualities could be assigned to the magnitude of values. Increased revenues are good while increased expenses are not so good. These refinements were easily configured through a simple panel of options but sharpened the story’s clarity and meaning.
It's something Ajenstat said “I’m really excited by this; it’s what Tableau has aimed to do - to make data accessible” and the feature is currently in preview now, to be released generally later in the quarter.
It's a feature this iTWire writer is especially excited by too. On a personal level, in my 30 years of professional IT, I’ve developed software, implemented infrastructure, and done many things - but I’ve always found the most impactful has been when putting information - unlocking the value of previously inaccessible data - into the hands of those who can use it to manage and drive their business. It’s something I’ve done and it’s something I’ve spoken about enthusiastically.
iTWire, of course, reports on the news factually and objectively but for me, personally, this new capability within Tableau is one that I can confidently say is a magnificent addition and one that truly brings with it the ability to transform organisations.
Data Stories can be further augmented by the existing Explain feature in Tableau, providing the “why” behind data. Using Explain you can see anomalies, outliers, and potential data problems. You can also see what your visuals look like if these anomalies were removed. Again, you don’t have to do anything - Tableau’s advanced statistics and analytics work in the background to bring matters to your attention that might not be recognised otherwise. For instance, you may have highly profitable items but not realise the majority of your orders are actually unprofitable - and are being carried along by the highly profitable ones.
Explain exists now, but combining it with Data Stories is like having a data scientist always with you when seeking to understand what your data is telling you and why it is what it is.
Well-known Australian businesses using Tableau include Transurban, working with literally tens of billions of pieces of data to go beyond standard reporting to understanding and modelling congestion and traffic flow, and Rugby Australia, giving coaches great insights into the team and player performance.
"Quite frankly, I'm excited to be here” (at TC22), Ajenstat said. “It’s like a family reunion, and it’s a time where we hear stories from customers all around the world who are using data to impact their careers and their communities.”
“That’s inspiring to us,” he said.