Tiny Portraits of Big Data

les-demoiselles-davignon-pablo-picasso-photo-in-public-domain
Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, by Pablo Picasso.

In August of 2016, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  As often happens at museums, I developed a new perspective.  I didn’t really understand cubism until I had the audio headset on, and took a close look at the art.  A main concept is that the things we see in real life are a series of smaller pictures that we bring together in our minds.  To portray this in art, the early cubists created larger paintings that were a series of smaller images put side-by-side.  The edges of the smaller pictures squared-off like a full painting.  The smaller pictures don’t flow together into something “pretty.”  Rather, the somewhat nonsensical image is jarring you with the idea that you do indeed perceive the world as a random bundling of small images.

This is not dissimilar to producing human resources metrics in Excel.  The high point for our clients is clean charts that get to the point, which tell a story and cause better decision-making.   For lay audiences, the goal is fewer and cleaner ideas, somewhat pretty, like impressionist or realist art.  However, for the analyst, inside each of the “cells” in Excel, we create stand-alone calculations that are complex and beautiful creations in their own right.  We bundle together thousands of cells with formulas that slightly differ from one row to the next.  They are clever little formulas using commands such as VLOOKUP and SUMIFS.  Sometimes the formulas are complex and interesting, sometimes not.  But every cell has its own story.

I realized that my entire analytic career is built around a cubist perspective of formulas, creating a final canvas that is a fusion of a large number of small ideas.  Some people see a page full of numbers but, for me, it all looks like Demoiselles d’Avignon (shown above).  I didn’t invent this concept – that happened long ago – but I do get to apply the idea to practical effect.  I have the pleasure of taking the concept out of fine art and applying it to the realm of workforce analytics.

What does this mean for you?  If you’re just getting comfortable with formulas, you are allowed to just create one small cell with a simple statement.  Then make a few more. Add a little more complexity.  Then you can stop.  Or build on it over time.

However, if nobody thinks your analysis looks pretty, don’t worry, this isn’t Hollywood.  If nobody wants to buy it, forget about it, you’re busy.  And sure, your colleagues could have made it themselves.

But they didn’t, did they?

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