Book Review: Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless

Posted 31/08/2016

One of the ongoing challenges of Category Management and Supplier Relationship Management is the need to stretch our understanding of the world around us. As a part of that, we are running a short series of book reviews, and specifically those books which have provided the FP team with a degree of insight and understanding that has helped us when working with clients and developing new approaches.
 

We’re starting with Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless. One of our significant challenges in developing category strategies is to make sense of the wealth of data which surrounds any category (together with some astonishing gaps in that data). Our suggestion here is to make sure that we are practiced at visualising data in a compelling way and able to present that data in a way that leads to knowledge. 

McCandless starts, albeit briefly, with that concept that knowledge comes from excellent visualisation of data, as the linkages, causes and effects come to the surface. He notes that the challenge often comes from the additional depth that is revealed during the act of visualisation and this in itself causes additional complexity. He also recognises that the underlying data set frequently changes with time. To deal with this he provides linkages to the data sets used to develop the graphic visualisations which are the core of the content of the book. 

The vast majority of the book is a set of data visualisations in a whole range of subject areas. The initial impact of each page is often dramatic, as a range of concepts is presented. As an example, page 66 shows the US top 500 companies rated on an ethical scale expressed as effective income tax rate vs. an overall ethical score. This is added to with markers for average tax rates, and colour coded by broad industry areas. The overall sense from the visualisation is both of elements of clustering, the better performance of consumer focused industries and the generally lower performance of energy and utility businesses. It immediately raises questions for purchasers about what our own business’s expectations would be in these areas, but also suggests a need to understand the make up of the overall ethical score. This is usefully provided on the top of the visualisation. There is a link provided to the background information and the data sources used, which of itself is a considerable resource.

There is a broad spread of approaches used as examples of visualisation, from word clouds, to mixed dashboards, flowcharts, augmented maps, bubble diagrams and more. Even if our exact area of interest isn’t there, the suggestions (and the links to the underlying data) are valuable. 

Many of the data sets visualised are less relevant to procurement (best Simpsons episode?) but each takes an approach on visualisation that suggests different ways of how we might explore the relationships between broad factors, and also gives a unique insight to the background analysis and work which is necessary to deliver this level of insight. 

For Procurement professionals, these are the most interesting aspects; firstly, recognising the background data set construction and its importance in the development of a good visualisation. Secondly, the breadth of ways of representing data so that there is an ability to grasp the underlying knowledge available. 

Although it is unusual to suggest a graphical exploration of data as a recommended book, it is as valid a concept as many explored in more text based books. Spending time digging through the various ideas and the supporting data will help us identify new ways to provide insight about our categories which have previously eluded us. 

Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless ISBN 978-0007427925

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowledge-Beautiful-David-McCandless/dp/0007427921

Allison Ford-Langstaff


Tagged by topic: Book Reviews

  by Allison Ford-Langstaff

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