Tableau CPO on bringing data into the hands of employees

Francois Ajenstat, Chief Product Officer, Tableau at Salesforce. Image courtesy of Salesforce.

Data democratisation isn’t just about giving data access to everyone in the enterprise. For data to be truly accessible, everyone in the organisation must be able to work with data comfortably enough that they feel confident to talk about it, regardless of their technical knowledge. The main goal is that all can make informed decisions.

One of the advocates for this democratisation is Tableau, a visual analytics platform which was acquired by Salesforce in 2019.

Frontier Enterprise recently spoke with Francois Ajenstat, Chief Product Officer, Tableau at Salesforce, to get his perspective on all things data. This includes bringing data to business users, the future of data visualisation, developments in their field, as well as the products they’re working on, among others.

What are the most significant (data and analytics) changes you’ve seen in the last 10-15 years, specifically when it comes to data visualisation?

Tableau was founded 18 years ago with the goal of getting data in front of as many people as possible – whether they’re an analyst, data scientist, student, teacher, executive, or business user. Since then, data visualisation has gone from a specialised technology to the mainstream and is now the leading method to exploring data. We now see visualisations in our daily lives, from COVID-19 data on the front page of the New York Times to visualisations about our steps on our phones, to the latest info about the economy. These visualisations are now omnipresent in our lives, even if we don’t always realise it.

The past two years alone have certainly been a time of great change. McKinsey reported how the adoption of digital transformation jumped five years forward in just eight weeks during the pandemic’s early days. And at Tableau and Salesforce, we know that every digital transformation is really a data transformation. Data and analytics are increasingly relevant to organisations in every industry, of every size. They help inform decisions, identify opportunities, and navigate changes needed to be successful in the digital economy.

But it’s not enough to just have data. Now, businesses are faced with the challenge of needing to know how to use and analyse data to remain competitive. We recently partnered with Forrester Consulting to explore the business imperative of having a data literate workforce. By 2025, close to 70% of employees in APJ are expected to use data heavily in their job, up from 38% in 2018. The most in-demand job skills right now are data skills, yet the comfort level for most employees to use data is still low. There’s a huge opportunity out there for us to help close that gap.

Data democratisation has been a common refrain among analytics platforms for some time, including Tableau. What differentiates Tableau’s approach to making data accessible to everyone in the enterprise versus similar products out there?

Tableau is always looking for new ways to make analytics easier to use, predictive, and integrated into the flow of business so more people can see and understand their data. While it’s known that data-driven organisations are more successful, the reality is many companies are not driven by data, and their employees are not able to access or engage with the data they need to make informed decisions. Businesses are keeping it in the hands of a select few in traditional data roles, but they need to get data into the hands of employees such as frontline workers to make everyday decisions – and fast.

One of the ways we are lowering the barrier to analytics for all is with products such as Tableau Business Science – AI-powered analytics that aim to bring the capabilities of data science into the hands of business people. We’re also imagining what we could do if we made data speak the language of people by having the software write the story for you automatically. We’re doing that with our new feature, Data Stories, which uses AI and natural language capabilities to help people understand, share, and distribute data in approachable ways. In fact, a study by Gartner said that by 2025, data stories will be the most widespread way of consuming analytics – and three quarters of stories will be automatically generated using augmented analytics techniques.

It’s more than just providing a pretty picture of the data: it’s about empowering the people who know the data (the business users) to be able to explore and get answers from their data. 

Take the frontline warehouse operators at healthcare provider, Zuellig Pharma, who are non-IT specialists and are trained to harness the power of data and analytics to inform supply chain decisions. They are also empowered to review real-time operational KPIs and dashboard-driven statistics to understand how processes impact their KPIs.

Finally, we know that the biggest challenge to data democratisation is data literacy, or the ability to read, work with, and understand data. Data literacy is the foundation that customers need to build if they want to succeed with digital transformation. Tableau has been investing in improving it with our pledge to train 10 million data learners over the next five years.

How do you think data visualisation will evolve within the next three to five years? How has the increased need for digital transformation and business intelligence affected today’s data visualisation space?

Data is the heartbeat of the modern enterprise. And the truth is that data-driven organisations understand their customers better and can provide them more value. This growth in data is accelerating the demand for analytics, as more information and engagement provokes more questions and fuels demand for more analysis, answers, and value.

The future, then, is ubiquitous analytics – analytics for anyone in the flow of work. In this new reality, data is trusted, it’s easier to use in driving better and deeper insights, it’s smarter and more automated, and is infused where people work, so anyone can make better decisions faster.

We’re also going to see more demand for intuitive visual analytics with AI-driven capabilities that are built into everyday workflows, so that anyone can be comfortable using data and analytics. And it’s not just high-tech companies that will need data – every organisation will see an increased need for analytics and knowing how to act on the data they have.

I’ll illustrate this through one of my favourite examples from an organisation here in the United States. During the pandemic, non-profit organisation Feeding America grappled with how to properly serve rapidly changing communities. Through Tableau’s visual analytics capabilities, Feeding America can access and “see” large sets of data to understand and respond to the needs and preferences of neighbours seeking food assistance.

Feeding America embedded Tableau dashboards within their Salesforce environment which allows their staff to see critical data about member food banks as they are engaging with them on a variety of topics such as food sourcing and distribution, food insecurity demographics in their service area, operations, and financials. What’s remarkable is that Feeding America is not a traditional tech business but was able to reach underserved populations with speed and agility – all with an analytics platform.

The recent push to move everything to the cloud has been huge, and this includes analytics. How is the analytics experience and performance in the cloud different compared to on-prem? How has this exodus affected Tableau and its products?

Cloud is the future of data analytics. It’s where we work, it’s where most of our customers are now and it’s the fastest way to make data work. If you want to make the most of data today, you have to have speed. You need to be able to access your data faster, get insights faster, and get faster time to value. The way to achieve all this is in the cloud.  

At Tableau, nearly 70% of our new customers are starting their analytics journey in the cloud and many of our enterprise customers are already working in the cloud. And, we’ve observed strong demand for self-service analytics in the cloud from our APJ customers such as Zuellig Pharma in Singapore, Airtasker in Sydney, and GooDay in Japan.

All that said, we sail multiple sails, and our customers have the freedom and flexibility to run our software on-premises or on any public cloud. The on-prem and online versions of Tableau are the same – allowing our customers to make that switch easily.

What are some of the most exciting developments in Tableau’s labs, specifically the ones coming out of this year’s Tableau Conference?

We’re lucky that as part of Salesforce, we can tap into resources that allow us to deliver analytics in the flow of where our customers work. At Tableau Conference, we announced Tableau Cloud as well as the Model Builder feature – which brings data science to business users – and the Data Stories feature, which brings data storytelling to the masses.

And, we’ve got more coming later this year. Our new Tableau Exchange brings out-of-the-box Accelerators for various use cases and industries. Our Data Fabric capabilities seek to simplify data management and bring trusted data to all users. And we’re infusing AI across our products to make Tableau smarter and help people answer the why behind their data.