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Can we steer banks like cars?

Sachsen LB could have at least tried to. Their board of directors trusted a few traffic lights. They were usually green, but now all German taxpayers see is red.

The unexpected sale of Sachsen LB must have given BI companies something to think about. The German taxpayers certainly did! We know that software marketing often simplifies things to a level of utter stupidity. Take the samples in Microsoft’s Business Scorecard Manager demo, for instance. The (fortunately!) fictitious company monitors its performance with extremely lean base data – with success, of course, as always in the optimistic world of product demos.

The charts used are the kind that Bella usually growls about in her blog about practical data visualization. The information density – or better said, lack thereof – would make fans of the sports section of the daily paper question the seriousness of the supervisory bodies in businesses. Despite all the propaganda, management dashboards tend to have 5% of the information density of an average stats table.

Some people say that it doesn’t matter, because it is all just marketing and has nothing to do with performance management. Since the Sachsen LB drama I am not so sure, especially after hearing Ronald Weckesser ramble on the evening news about the previous methods of risk assessment:

“The board of directors gets a regular risk report that they can read. And it has a little traffic light with the three colors: red, yellow and green. And when it is green, and most of the reports were always green – highly recommended from international agencies – Triple A was the name – then they say, well, it seems that everything is fine.”

Was that just a misunderstanding or are the consultants passing marketing clichés off as performance management insight to their clients? That would be a shame! The market offers something more than just entertaining managers through visualization techniques that deliver lofty effects with little information. There are robust early-warning systems, practical ways to present detailed data, and useful navigations that help users quickly investigate complex hierarchies – even if they aren’t capital market experts.

Perhaps Weckesser’s apology illustrates the responsibility that we have as information designers. Bias against traffic lights* is nothing new. Even experienced managing directors and executives only use them with caution. People who deliver green lights instead of the underlying numbers have made a decision instead of supporting the decision-making process. That can cause problems. The people who choose that route because they don’t trust their audience will suffer the consequences. An investigative committee has already examined the correlation between the improper use of information paradigms and real-world catastrophes. Back then it was about PowerPoint and NASA space shuttle disasters. It remains unseen what will happen in the case of Sachsen LB.

* Bissantz, N., Praxiserfahrungen mit Data-Mining-Projekten, in: Grothe, M. and Gentsch, P., Business Intelligence, Munich 2000, pp. 188-206.