Book Review: The Visual Organization by Phil Simon

Jon Salm
Written 9 months ago
in Design

It seems fitting for Phil Simon to release his sixth book, The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions, on the same day that Nate Silver relaunched FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver’s 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t, turned Silver into a household name and proved the enormous value of a Big Data-driven approach to prediction making. Simon is no stranger to Big Data. His previous book, 2013’s Too Big to Ignore: The Business Case for Big Data established why Big Data is essential for business to use.

The Visual Organziation

With The Visual Organization, Simon goes beyond the basics established in The Signal and the Noise and Too Big to Ignore, turning his expert eye towards data visualization – what it is, why it matters, and how becoming a visual organization can make a business more nimble, more innovative, and ultimately, more successful.

The Visual Organization succeeds in its wealth of case studies and examples, which Simon uses to structure his arguments. While many consumers may be aware of Netflix’s inventive business practices, few likely know the extent. Netflix’s personal recommendation algorithms are just the tip of the iceberg. Simon reveals that by obsessively analyzing the cover of TV shows and movies through data visualization, Netflix optimizes the cover of their original series to best match user preferences.

 

Compare the covers from Netflix's House of Cards with PBS' Macbeth from Great Performances

Now compare Netflix's data visualization analysis of the two covers

Not all companies have the budget and manpower to skillfully practice data visualization and draw valuable insights, but – as Simon smartly notes – “one need not be a behemoth like Netflix to embrace the notion of a Visual Organization.” The Visual Organization shows how data visualization best practices can benefit businesses from the leanest startups such as micro-pollsters Wedgies, to industry giants such as AutoDesk.

In addition to the examples of successful visual organizations, Simon touches on the abundant tools, languages, and devoted data viz companies that help transform and visualize data.

Simon spends the first half of The Visual Organization establishing the worth of a visual organization and the second describing how to get there. While his central thesis gets bogged down by a largely abstract chapter on a four-level visual organization framework, The Visual Organization’s case studies, tips, tricks, and debunked data viz myths keep the book interesting from start to finish. Simon is quick to both demonstrate the value of data visualization and to establish the boundaries between what it can and cannot do. “Visual Organizations realize that, by itself, no data-visualization application magically ‘solves the Big Data problem,’ ” Simon writes. “Rather, data-visualization must work in conjunction with Big Data and other applications.”

Overall, The Visual Organization succeeds in describing how businesses can harness the power of Big Data through data visualization. Simon’s storytelling-based approach easily clarifies complex business issues and keeps the book light and easy to read. The Visual Organization should find plenty of fans as data visualization goes beyond buzzword and into the mainstream.

For more information, check out The Visual Organization on Amazon, visit PhilSimon.com, or follow Phil on Twitter: @PhilSimon.

Jon Salm is an associate client analyst at Millward Brown Digital in New York City and a freelance data journalist in the Visual.ly marketplace. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Washington and Lee University. You can find him online at about.me/salm.jon and follow him on twitter @S4LM3R.