Why Companies Should Push Rather Than Pull Data


Originally published in American City Business Journals

By David Levin

When Southwest Airlines tested new screens at Dallas Love Field airport recently, it took some of the stress out of waiting for a flight.

We’re used to seeing screens in airport terminals, with monitors displaying a sea of information for passengers who look for the drop of data they need. But these new screens in Dallas not only show data; they also suggest an action, getting at the core of why passengers are looking at the displays in the first place.

The screens visually display such things as how full a flight is — the No. 1 question in departure lounges — and give passengers suggestions of what to occupy themselves with before boarding, like whether there’s enough time to grab lunch. Information is color-coded with urgent items in yellow, bringing more attention to specific flights as the departure times near.

Southwest is not only dynamically pushing data; they are letting people know the best action to take. By contrast, standard flight information display boards that only provide departure times and gate numbers seem old-fashioned. The difference between the two approaches highlights a critical problem facing the business world today: Businesses have more and more data but typically fail to use it effectively. Solving that problem will require businesses to take push messaging to the next level. And by doing so, they’ll be able to strike a better balance between push- and pull-based content.

Right now, businesses rely too much on pull data; if you want to use data to produce positive outcomes, someone typically has had to pull it out of a spreadsheet repository. But as the amount of data grows, that task becomes exponentially harder. Instead, we should use software to analyze data, identify the most important metrics, and then push that information to users in a visually appealing way. While some organizations are using screens to drive performance, most are still just providing raw data on those signs, leaving the analysis up to the person looking at the screen.

In our personal lives, we have grown to expect excellent visual displays of information. We have apps for everything, analyzing data about ourselves, our tastes, our needs, and the performance of our investments. I’m fascinated lately by my Apple Health app. This free software tracks my movement and exercise, my heartbeat, and even how often I wake during sleep every night. In an increasingly digital world, we have become used to apps pushing this information to us in a visually appealing way.

That’s not the case in the professional world, however, where too often data is displayed on spreadsheets, requiring the end user to analyze the information in order to make it actionable. That’s a growing problem because the amount of data being created by businesses more than doubles every two years. The pace of data creation is so fast that from 2010 to 2020, data will have grown at least 50-fold. With all this information, often collected in real-time, businesses are losing the battle of making the best use of it. And again, when they are pushing dynamic information, they aren’t differentiating it from pull-based methods. They aren’t pushing an action.

What business can learn from apps is that the information worth displaying is not always the information we know we need, which we can find, or pull, ourselves. The best information is often data we don’t know we need that is pushed to us. The key is using software to analyze data behind the scenes and then visually displaying that information in an actionable way. It’s about getting the right balance between pull and push — making it easier for us to pull the data we want, with a few touches of a screen or a voice request but differentiating push messaging by giving us the information we may not even know we need. Effective business communication should use a combination of push and pull, together. Don’t push me data I can pull from my phone; that’s redundant. Businesses need to push information that’s meaningful. They need to push an action.

This year, businesses will spend $18.3 billion on business intelligence software, according to Gartner Inc., giving executives dashboards where they have to dig out the data they need. However, we know from our use of apps that’s not how people want to interact with data, especially since millennials who grew up using smartphones are now half of the workforce.

To empower staff with information, businesses need data transparency and must communicate that data — and the desired action — effectively. By pushing an action along with data, the information makes more of an impact on the people who can act upon it. And that drives productivity.

The companies that will succeed in the digital age are those that effectively use data visualization to drive a desired action.

David Levin co-founded Four Winds Interactive in 2005 with a vision for how digital technology would transform the way businesses communicate and engage with their customers and employees. Today, FWI has 6,000 clients and more than 500,000 screens deployed. Prior to FWI, he co-founded Sage Circle, a software and consulting services firm, and was an associate at Denver-based venture capital firm Cornerstone Ventures.