New ideas on visualization: the Oxford Workshop

July 5, 2008

Just returned from an inspiring academic event. The First Workshop on Imagining Business just took place last week in Oxford, at the Said School of Business. Visualization, especially as applied to finance, is a true passion of mine: it is a crucial component of contemporary markets (see my work on merger arbitrage), it offers lucrative business opportunities for innovation (see previous blog post), and it has been used to great effect by artists to re-imagine Wall Street (see my article here). Given all this, I attended the Oxford event with at least the same enthusiasm that my fellow Spaniards showed at the European soccer final. What, I asked myself, does existing research say about business visualization?

The organizers — Paolo Quattrone, François-Régis Puyou and Chris Mclean – were aware of the importance of the visual in organizations, and offered a perspective based on Science and Technology Studies. According to them:

Organizations are saturated with images, pictures, and signs that impact on many different aspects of everyday organizational life (…) Over the past decades, Science and Technology Studies have largely contributed to clarifying the importance of “representation in scientific practice” (Lynch & Woolgar, 1990). Through their focus on the process of re-presentation they highlighted how specific practices of making things visible … were central to ‘doing’ science. We wish to extend this to a study of business.

In other words, science is first and foremost about visualizations. What about its more practical, mundane and prevalent cousin — business? What to make of, “budgets and accounting tools, advertising literature, design specifications?” What do we think is the visual power of “public relations leaflets, standard operating procedures, schedules, reports, graphs, charts, organizational hierarchies [and] maps?” These were the questions that the presenters set out to answer. As a very refreshing novelty, the conference was accompanied by an art exhibition curated by Nina Wakeford, Lucy Kimbell and Alex Hodby.

The approaches to visualization were numerous and varied. I could not attend to all the presentations. But according to my own taxonomy, the presentations fell into four different groups: one set of papers explored how images (mostly photographs) are used for public relations and communication. A fascinating piece by Sue Hrasky explored the use of visual cues and images in corporate annual reports. Whereas researchers in accounting and management tend to decry the use of smiling people as not constituting “information,” Hrasky shows how images complement, reframe and expand the meaning conveyed by the text. On a similar note, Charles Cho, Jillian Phillips and Amy Hageman explore the significance of images in corporate social responsibility.

Another line of presentations engaged with images from a semiotic perspective. Presenters offered their interpretation of the meaning of the images used by businesses. A interesting example from the finance industry was provided by Frandsen, Bunn and McGoun: the authors explore how the changing architecture of banks through the 20th C. –from the closed imagery of a safe to the alluring aesthetics of retail – has changed to fit evolving social views of money. As money changed from a “stock” that needs to be protected to a virtual flow that needs to be kept active, so has the architecture of banks adapted.

But my favorite piece was by Brigitte Biehl. She analyzed the cultural symbols at the trading floor of the Deustche Borse. The German stock market has recently upgraded its floor from a dark, low-tech space to an expensive and futuristic-looking market. The Borse also engages in publicity stunts a la Dick Grasso at the New York Stock Exchange: celebrating carnival on the floor, or inviting models in bikinis. All this performative drama gives rise to the obvious question: why such expenditure on the floor, just as electronic trading seems to be dominating the rest of world exchanges? Biehl has a cynical but interesting answer: because the investing public is ignorant of finance. Exchanges reduce the cognitive distance that retail investors experience vis-à-vis earnings, indexes, and other complications of the capital markets.

What to make of this argument? The problem with the “circus” approach to finance, of course, is that it sends a misleading signal. Even if they look serious and powerful on TV news, the clerks at the Borse are not actually responsible for the price movements. One of the attendees in the public offered an interesting solution: if the problem is the need to show people in the evening news, why not do it the way it’s done in London? Put a camera inside the trading rooms of the large investment banks, broadcast TV news from there.

Regardless of one’s view, Biehl needs to be congratulated for sparking a much-needed debate on this type of strategic semiotics of financial exchanges.

A third line of work engaged the imagining side of images: exploring how images can promote novel thinking on a certain issue. Here, the plenary presentation by Donald MacKenzie was one of the most talked about. MacKenzie asked, what would it take for a market to address current environmental problems? The existing European cap-and-trade system (so-called carbon trading) does not seem to be a success… but why? MacKenzie views cap-and-trade systems as a case of performativity: a practical instantiation of Ronald Coase’s theory of property rights. According to some, this performative move was too complex — an economist’s pet project, turned sour. MacKenzie’s presentation delved into accounting and regulatory details that have prevented vigorous trading in pollution permits, even suggesting some regulatory changes of his own. Fascinating work, and very different from the more distant historical perspective he took on Black-Scholes. As an SSF researcher, I can only salute this initiative and welcome the start of SSF research with real political impact (a topic of recent post by Yuval and Martha).

An enlightening “imagining” presentation was offered by Susan Scott and Wanda Orlikowski. Following a very broad review of the management literature on social media, the authors found that the choice of methodological tradition is very related to the way social media is imagined. Research that follows the strategy/ economics- inspired paradigm tends to view technology as a distinct entity, cut off from its users; whereas research in the ethnographic/ sociological tradition views technology in terms of community, with little focus on the unity of the phenomenon. I found this divide intriguing. The authors emphasized the need to overcome a dualistic image of social media, suggesting Pickering’s expression, “the mangle of practice.”

My own presentation engaged with images in a different manner – what I would call “calculative visualization.” In a nutshell, I talked about the spread plot (080623-distributed-calculation-at-imagining-business1). The spread plot allows merger arbitrageurs to calculate the “implicit probability” of merger completion: the probability that “the market” assigns to a successful completion of mergers that have been announced but remain to be solidified. It is special in that if you know how to use it (as professional hedge fund traders do) you can “see” the probabilities of merger between two companies. If you don’t – as is the case with retail investors – you are left guessing. Images like the spread plot, I argue, are responsible for part of the billions of profit made in these past decade by the hedge fund industry. And the more recent diffusion of these tools may well account for the limited returns experienced by these funds nowadays. (Two other examples of this were provided by presentations on SAP and the imaging system used by oil companies.)

To conclude — what did I learn about business visualization? That research in them falls on four very different types: corporate communications, semiotic analyses, re-imaginary approaches and calculative images. Perhaps predictably, I find this fourth type most persuasive. Beyond the natural allure of photographs, brochures or interfaces, I am particularly interested in visualizations that have color but also data, that let people imagine but also count, that inspire but are also practical. The capital markets are a terrific environment to explore these.

In any case… whether one subscribes or not to my view, the overall message from the conference is clear: visualizations are key to contemporary business. Researchers need to engage with them. The organizers of this workshop need to be congratulated for putting together a novel, daring and successful event.

6 Responses to “New ideas on visualization: the Oxford Workshop”

  1. marthapoon Says:

    A question of clarification Daniel – in STS visualization was an inherently central theme because the task of many sciences was to see nature, to make visible what was invisible to the naked eye.

    Is there something specific that characterizes visualization practices in business? Is there a particular thing (like ‘nature’) that needs to be seen?

    Your four part typology suggests a more maverick approach to the use of visualization techniques in this area of research…

  2. danielbeunza Says:

    Very good question. I would say that actors in “business” also have a shared interest: they are all struggling with Knightian uncertainty. For CSR investors — is this company going to continue behaving responsibly in the future? For traders — are these two companies going to merge? So, I would say that visualizations are all to some extent tools for decision making.

    In this sense, visualizations are the market artifacts that Callon has been highlighting for years. Now, some of them (like photographs in an annual report) do not immediately lend themselves to calculative decision-making. But they may help build analogies or help investors categorize a company.

  3. Zsuzsanna Says:


    I’m going to address the “retailization” of banking in one part of my dissertation, specifically the recent changes in the design of bank branches (and later online as well). So the presentation you mentioned, a more historical approach, sounds very exciting:

    “Frandsen, Bunn and McGoun: the authors explore how the changing architecture of banks through the 20th C. –from the closed imagery of a safe to the alluring aesthetics of retail – has changed to fit evolving social views of money.”

    Based on your brief intro, the authors treat design as merely a reflection of the social, while I am treating it also as a strategic intervention. Changing the design of a bank is also an experiment into attaching consumers in new ways, by projecting and materializing new views of money.

    Do you by any chance have their conference paper?

  4. danielbeunza Says:

    Your take sounds very interesting — and very much in the spirit of the social studies of finance. Sadly, the papers from the conference are not available online to non-participants. But I’m sure the authors will be happy to email you a copy.

  5. […] shoulders of science and technology studies. An intriguing question came up in last week’s Imagining Business workshop — how are the two […]

  6. marthapoon Says:

    Daniel! That ‘decision making’ in finance is the counterpart of ‘nature’ in science is a really satisfying answer to my question. Does that mean that ‘financialization’ is a way of configuring the world into decision makers placed in decision formatted situations held together by market devices?

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