Beyond the Dashboard: Using Storytelling to Align Business Intelligence with the Business


Flying a plane and utilising business information to deliver organisational strategy is much the same thing. Hear me out—as a pilot, if my outcome is to land my aircraft safely, I review an approach chart and consider information like speed and wind direction to achieve that goal. As a business leader, if my outcome is to achieve specific KPIs, I review information to understand what actions I need to take to reach those metrics. In both cases, information is key to understanding the complete story and informing next steps.

But getting bogged down in the details of your approach means you can lose sight of your desired outcome. If we get consumed by the details and obsessed with the dashboard, we lose sight of our business outcome and struggle to maintain focus.

If we get obsessed with the dashboard, we lose sight of our business outcome and struggle to maintain focus.

For South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SCAS), the business outcome has always been clear: to provide patients with help as quickly as possible and serve our communities. As one of eleven NHS ambulance services in England, we provide emergency response, non-emergency patient transport, and the 111 Integrated Urgent Care services in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Hampshire. We have more than 300 sites across our service area. We have over 4,000 colleagues, 1,323 vehicles, and more than 1,200 community responders that serve seven million people. It’s a big outfit, and we stay close to our goals with a good business intelligence (BI) solutions that support both clinical delivery and enabling functions, such as HR and finance.

Keeping Our Mission Front and Centre

I am the assistant director for BI at SCAS, and I work alongside my colleagues, Vivienne Parsons and Mark Green, also part of the SCAS Business Intelligence Team. We nurture the flow of information around SCAS and its various locations, look for ways to increase its availability for our multivariate business processes, and make sure our colleagues have the information skills to make effective decisions. 

Like many other organisations, we are focused on delivering our strategy, and the SCAS BI team takes a multi-step process to support key decisions for internal and external colleagues. Our management information (MI) strategy focusses on enabling decision-making and follows a three-part framework we’ve dubbed A-C-W:

  • A: availability of relevant information for decision-making groups within the organisation (via traditional BI)
  • C: capability to use the relevant information by making information literacy a part of our employee’s standard management practice (up-skilling the whole organisation)
  • W: willingness to use relevant information to accomplish tasks by fostering a data-informed organisational culture (thereby encouraging delegation and the freedom to share information and be comfortable in making decisions, particularly where they may challenge perceived wisdom)

Our goal is to enable great decision-making processes through the power of information literacy, which includes laying the groundwork for advanced analytics, challenging behaviour, and relying on business value-driven information. And for more than a decade, we’ve relied on Qlik to help us land on the runway from an organisational perspective!

SCAS Journey with Qlik

At SCAS, the BI value proposition is the enabling of supervisory, management, and leadership decision-making to support the delivery of effective and efficient services. That’s why we aligned ourselves with a supplier focused on similar goals and ways of working.

Qlik and SCAS have long been partners on the journey to more effective BI. Our first foray was with QlikView back in 2010. We primarily used Excel and Access, so discovering the simplicity of Qlik was a game-changer for our team. It wasn’t long before we wanted to invest more in BI and started working with Qlik Partner Differentia Consulting to help explore new horizons. We spent years building a process that integrated seamlessly with our needs, and then expanded into Qlik NPrinting, Inphinity’s Qlik extensions, and a managed information service.

The next big move is migrating to Qlik Sense, which I believe is truly the future of business intelligence through enabling the end consumers of the information to be more in control of what they have access to. Along the way, we’ve launched Qlik Continuous Classroom (QCC). QCC was a key component of our information literacy programme, and provided a fantastic framework for us, meaning we did not have to reinvent the wheel.

Information literacy isn’t about teaching people stats. It’s about storytelling and understanding; the two must happen together to make data matter.

It’s not hard to see how much SCAS values information—it’s been a major part of our operations since 2010. But while we used to rely on information analysis to present users with hard numbers, we quickly realised this siloed approach didn’t align with our business goals. We’ve learned that information literacy isn’t about teaching people stats. Frankly, that’s not what we do (or want to do) here at SCAS. Instead, it’s all about understanding and storytelling, and the two must happen together to make information matter.

Let’s go back to our approach chart example. Numbers and metrics are instrumental. I can use the wind speed and direction to alter how I handle the aircraft. But when you don’t understand what those numbers mean, they can be subject to misinterpretation or, worse, lead to analysis paralysis and inaction. For an inexperienced pilot, that could mean a dangerous landing, or worse! For a business, it leads to circular conversations where no one makes meaningful decisions and nothing improves.

We saw this first-hand in our own operations, particularly during executive meetings. Our team used to provide more than 40 slides’ worth of charts filled to the brim with detailed information. Week after week, we displayed the same-looking slides with the same-looking charts. Even though the information changed, we realised nobody understood them because we weren’t championing good information literacy, for senior decision-makers in this case. What are the key points? What should we be focusing on? One important lesson from this was that if nothing has changed since the last time, state that. Do not going looking for more information to fill the time. 

Our first attempt at an information literacy course didn’t go very well. Interest was low, and it didn’t change anything within the organisation. It was a bit frustrating, but in hindsight, there were three major reasons why. First, our users are clinicians whose strength is patient care. Although they’re excellent information analysts when it comes to treating conditions, they don’t have as much experience using information as a business process tool. Second, we didn’t build up to the training over time. We set the bar high, and although our colleagues were willing to learn, they didn’t know how to get started.

And third? We didn’t tell a good story about what we were trying to achieve.

Storytelling with Business Intelligence

Information can’t tell a compelling story on its own. If I give you a chart, what does that information tell you about the situation? And if multiple people are in the room, will everyone emerge from that room having reached the same conclusions and action plan? Probably not.

At this point, we decided to combine the art of storytelling with information literacy—something we neglected in our first version of the program. We invested in information literacy again, this time using Qlik to stress the storytelling components. We worked with the Qlik team to develop the Information Literacy course and used the QCC as the framework.

The structure of the course followed a multi-modal approach. The QCC has an online pre-course assessment so colleagues could define their information knowledge and comfort levels. Their answers placed colleagues into information personas, which automatically customised the online learning process. Then we hosted five live sessions over eight weeks, with four of those sessions hosted by Qlik. We supplemented those sessions with a weekly online learning module based on users’ assigned data persona. At the end of the course, we added a small project to assess how much attendees learned. The QCC also had a post-course questionnaire to get feedback and measure improvement.

We saw much more traction from our efforts this time around. There was marked improvement in the understanding of information use, and most importantly, we saw learning outcomes translate to the field.

One of our emergency call control operators, Nikki, had been interested, engaged, and driven throughout the course, actively asking how information could inform her team’s responses in various scenarios. She got promoted to lead one of the two 999 control rooms, and the biggest challenge for those centres is getting through calls fast and thoroughly, and then quickly completing the task that operators must do after each call. Nikki took on board everything talked about in the information literacy course, figuring out how to tell operators the story of consequences that accompany long call handling times. Then she challenged the team to identify opportunities to bring that time down.

Because of that engagement and how she expressed that story to tenured and new staff, she knocked 30 seconds off a 10-minute average call time within six weeks. When you get  600,000 calls a year, that time matters for both the patient in terms of how fast we respond, but also by increasing our efficiency and therefore capacity to handle more calls at a time when we have been under huge pressure for several years.

Nikki learned how to leverage storytelling and drive engagement that led to a significant impact, and she is just one example of how BI alignment has changed SCAS. We recently launched a second course through QCC, and we’re already hearing rumbles of excitement from staff looking to engage more. Colleagues have actually been approaching us and asking to attend the course!

Making Business Intelligence Readily Available

A good BI team can help business leaders make faster decisions more confidently as long as they convey the right story around the information. And as a BI team, we’ve learned quite a few tips for making information education readily available to colleagues:

  • Avoid being precocious and use the language of users. We’re trying to communicate with people and draw them in—not confuse people and push them away. Speaking the right language matters, especially in healthcare, so work with the words that your users are comfortable using.
  • Understand why the BI team exists. It’s no longer just about offering charts, reports, and apps. It’s about working together to help them tell the story that goes behind the information. Then the business can determine consistent messaging that everyone in the organisation can understand. We also provide an independent view, which helps challenge 'group think'.
  • Engage with the day-to-day business regularly. You need to understand what’s happening around you to make informed decisions for the future. Don’t sit behind a screen and let charts and numbers get in the way of seeing a situation. Experience the business first-hand and talk to others who do the same. I will go 'back to the shop floor' every three months, including some very long days as an observer on an ambulance!
  • Cement yourself at the beginning and end of the process. Automation is becoming a greater part of the analytics process, so ask yourself, ‘How can I get my colleagues to ask good questions on their own, and how do I help them use the answers effectively?’ Because automation is taking over the number crunching bit in the middle!

And, of course, partner with tools and platforms that make things easier. Throughout the SCAS journey to information literacy, Qlik has been indispensable. It’s more than just software; it’s a partnership. Their role in developing our storytelling course has been second to none and a powerful driver of results for our public sector organisation. With Qlik’s help, we’ve created a more information-literate workforce that uses storytelling to turn information into action. That is indispensable for the industry in which we serve, and it could very well save lives.

Healthcare is awash with numbers, and it’s easy to fall into a trap where numbers mean everything. However, it’s important to remember that numbers are only a way for people to understand a situation; they’re not a story in and of themselves. Stories connect people to the work they do every day and help them understand why the numbers matter in the first place. And at SCAS, the BI team helps everyone across the organisation understand the stories that enable the public to get the help they need, often at some of the worst times in their or their loved ones lives. 'Right Care, First Time, Every Time'.