“I’m a visual thinker: show me a picture!” A common sentiment and one we hear often because our biology hardwires us as visual creatures.
As observed by Emeritus Professor Trevor Lamb1, “the human eye is an exquisitely complicated organ”. Complicated and fast – researchers at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine2 “estimate that the human retina can transmit visual input at about the same rate as an Ethernet connection”. The eye connects via our second largest nerve to the visual cortex, our brain’s largest sub-system. So how do we best take advantage of our biology?
Perhaps maps represent humans’ most widely used pictures. We’ve constructed and used maps for thousands of years, early examples in clay, then on cloth (mappa meaning cloth in medieval Latin), and more recently on paper. Such maps are made to serve a variety of uses including showing relative positions of islands or countries, communicating a weather forecast, and navigating unfamiliar terrain.
Increasingly we see maps on our smartphones and, as reported by Pew Research Center3, navigating represents one of the common ways we use our phones. The researchers’ use of the term “navigation” is important: the underlying technology required to navigate includes:
– Mapping, plus
– GPS (Global Positioning System), and
– An understanding of why we are using this application and how we use it (that is to help us to navigate from A-to-B).
This last point about understanding the context that sits behind the activity we are undertaking, is known as domain knowledge. So the mapping function is the visualisation element, while the navigation application builds on this by bringing domain knowledge to the activity, such as directing me along main roads and making sure I don’t take the wrong way on one-way streets. Many of us find value in this combination of visualisation with domain knowledge in our personal lives – evidence is emerging that it creates value in the world of business too.
Historically, our business organisations have relied on reports full of dense text and spreadsheets to capture and communicate information. Reading through multiple dense texts requires great concentration, and even more so when facts established in one report must be crosschecked, interpreted and verified in other sources, and the final result documented in a custom in-house report or template. These tasks tax us mentally because they don’t play to our biological strengths as visual creatures. When the results are presented as a picture we immediately grab the gist of a matter much faster. Supported by new software, businesses across a range of industries are adopting visualisation as a valuable business tool. Analysis by Forrester Research4 suggests a strong correlation between companies enjoying high growth and their adoption of interactive data visualisation.
So how is a combination of interactive visualisation with domain knowledge relevant to the insolvency profession?
Corporate restructuring faces a challenging business environment as a prolonged period of low interest rates sees declining numbers of formal insolvency cases. The Insolvency Service5 reports 4,052 companies were declared insolvent in the three months to March 2015, this being down 1.3% on the final quarter of 2014 and 11.3% lower than the same period last year. New regulation, Insolvency (Amendment) Rules SI 2015/443 becoming effective 1st October 2015, will in many cases require an upfront estimate of fees and other expenses. These two factors, fewer cases and upfront fee setting, will likely unfold as a future of increased competition which in turn creates downward price pressure.
Encompass is designed to help insolvency professionals get their job done: it visualises the information sources they already use and applies domain knowledge (a result of years of work in the industry) to understand and highlight important information – for example highlighting as worthy of further investigation that two entities recorded in different reports with different dates of birth share the same address.
Our customers’ experience is that professionals in their firms become both more efficient (achieving the same outcomes in fewer hours) and more effective (creating interactive visualisations that help them understand complex corporate ownership structures and identify ambiguous and questionable associations) when using Encompass. In our current economic and regulatory regimes, such outcomes can differentiate a growing company from those merely treading water.