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Tableau completes acquisition of Narrative Science

With the closing of the purchase, the analytics vendor added automated data storytelling capabilities to its existing cache of natural language processing tools.

Tableau, through its parent company, completed the acquisition of Narrative Science.

Financial terms of the acquisition, which closed Wednesday, were not disclosed. The purchase was unveiled Nov. 15 in a blog post by Narrative Science CEO Stuart Frankel and subsequently confirmed by a spokesperson from Tableau.                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Officially, CRM giant Salesforce, which acquired Tableau for $15.7 billion in June 2019, made the acquisition. The plan, however, is to roll Narrative Science into Tableau, which operates independently of Salesforce.

Additive capabilities

Narrative Science is a data storytelling vendor founded in 2010 and based in Chicago.

In 2019, the vendor overhauled its platform and introduced Lexio as its primary tool. Lexio connects to an organization's data whether on premises, in the cloud or a hybrid of both, and uses augmented intelligence and machine learning to run queries and automatically generate narrative stories that help users understand what their data is telling them.

Tableau already offers natural language processing tools Ask Data and Explain Data.

Ask Data enables users to query their data in natural language rather than code. Explain Data automatically generates explanations of data points.

Adding the Narrative Science technology, however, will enable Tableau users to more easily work with their growing amounts of data, Tableau president and CEO Mark Nelson said in a blog post.

In addition, Nelson said Tableau doesn't just plan to keep Narrative Science's capabilities housed within Tableau to deliver narratives for reports and dashboards but will also integrate it throughout the Salesforce ecosystem.

That ability to embed Narrative Science's capabilities throughout Salesforce's platform -- and other work applications beyond Tableau -- is significant, according to Doug Henschen, an analyst at Constellation Research.

I have no doubt Tableau will be looking at delivering narratives well beyond the traditional confines of BI and analytics. I expect to see NLQ features showing up in many places, and Narrative Science's capabilities would be there to deliver easily understandable narratives.
Doug HenschenAnalyst, Constellation Research

"I have no doubt Tableau will be looking at delivering narratives well beyond the traditional confines of BI and analytics," he said. "I expect to see NLQ features showing up in many places, and Narrative Science's capabilities would be there to deliver easily understandable narratives rather than complex dashboards or data visualizations that business users might find hard to interpret."

Henschen added that the acquisition of Narrative Science will complement Tableau's existing NLP capabilities.

While Ask Data and Explain Data do some explaining, Lexio goes well beyond their capabilities.

Ask Data responds to a natural language query with a data visualization or simple narrative. Lexio, however, delivers deeper narrative responses, and those deeper data stories will enhance what Ask Data already does, according to Henschen.

Explain Data, meanwhile, points out exceptions and patterns that humans might not notice and then alerts users and provides a data visualization or explanation. Again, however, those explanations are limited, and Lexio's capabilities will enable Explain Data to deliver a more extensive narrative.

"Ask Data, Explain Data and Narrative Science are complementary capabilities," Henschen said.

Likewise, Mike Leone, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said Narrative Science's capabilities will complement Ask Data and Explain Data.

"While Tableau already has some NLP tools focused on improving data exploration, Narrative Science can offer end users more flexibility in how they can communicate insights through their preferred method of data storytelling," he said.

Sample data story from Narrative Science
A sample data story from Narrative Science describes an organization's sales bookings.

The promise of data storytelling

While Tableau's acquisition of Narrative Science will add to Tableau's cache of existing NLP capabilities, its significance goes beyond just the addition of technological capabilities that will benefit existing users.

Despite the recognized benefits of analytics software, organizations have been slow to use it extensively.

Depending on the source, it's estimated that only a quarter to one-third of employees use data to inform their decisions.

The reason analytics adoption remains so low is that, despite the advent of no-code/low-code technologies that enable people without coding knowledge to work with data, it still takes a level of expertise in statistics and computer science to interpret data and ask the follow-up questions of data that lead to insights and action.

By its nature, however, automated data storytelling -- an automatically generated explanation of data put in narrative form to help data consumers understand what their data is telling them -- lowers that barrier to entry.

In addition, because narrative storytelling is a more effective way of absorbing information than visualization alone, data storytelling even stands to benefit trained analysts as they try to interpret data.

Given the potential of data storytelling, Gartner predicts it will be the most widespread means of consuming analytics by 2025, and that by then a full 75% of all data narratives will be generated by AI and machine learning tools rather than data analysts.

"It's a tough ask for business-focused professionals to interpret a complex dashboard created by a data scientist," Leone said. "So much time is spent integrating, cleaning, processing and analyzing data to gain insight, but if that insight isn't being delivered effectively, taking action can be delayed."

He added that while time-to-insight is important, even more important is time-to-action.

"A new metric should start being scrutinized -- time-to-act," Leone said. "Effective storytelling can reduce the time-to-act."

Narrative Science, meanwhile, is viewed as one of the most fully realized systems for delivering automated data narratives.

Tableau and Narrative Science were partners before the acquisition, and before overhauling its platform and introducing Lexio, Narrative Science also had partnerships with Qlik, Microsoft Power BI, MicroStrategy and Sisense, among analytics vendors.

"Many BI and analytics vendors now offer natural language generation, but there are qualitative differences between primitive text-string generation based on underlying metadata -- the most basic form of NLG -- and products that can deliver more nuanced and insightful narratives," Henschen said.

He added that a major differentiator for Narrative Science's is that its platform is able to uncover and explain changes and exceptions within data rather than just describe data points in words.

"In short, it's better at telling the real story," Henschen said.

A competitive edge

Given Narrative Science's data storytelling expertise, Tableau's acquisition of Narrative Science stands to give Tableau a competitive advantage.

Among analytics vendors, Yellowfin places an emphasis on data storytelling. Toucan Toco, meanwhile, is a 2015 startup that began with data storytelling as its sole focus but has since branched out and developed a broader platform.

But advanced data storytelling is not yet widespread.

"Primitive natural language generation is commonplace," Henschen said. "Lots of vendors have added homegrown NLG capabilities in recent years."

And adding those NLG capabilities perhaps forced Narrative Science to improve its platform by replacing its legacy tool, Quill, with Lexio, he continued.

"That, no doubt, put cost pressure on Quill," Henschen said. Lexio is much more focused on delivering self-service narratives to business users."

Leone, meanwhile, noted that Tableau already had one of the more evolved analytics platform before its acquisition of Narrative Science, and including advanced data storytelling capabilities will only strengthen its position.

"As a leading business intelligence platform, this acquisition continues to bolster Tableau's edge with a doubling down of sorts in the rapidly growing area of augmented analytics," Leone said.

The Tableau acquisition of Narrative Science comes less than a week after Tableau unveiled its final platform update of 2021.

Tableau 2021.4 focused largely on data governance and security. In September, however, the vendor unveiled plans to integrate Ask Data and Explain Data with Slack, which was acquired by Salesforce in December 2020.

Those integrations are still under development and aren't expected until sometime in 2022, but when they are delivered they eventually are expected to incorporate Narrative Science technology.

Other future plans include further integrations with Salesforce; the growth of what Tableau terms business science capabilities, which enable business users to build and train data models without having to write code; and the addition of more APIs.

What isn't known, however, is how long Tableau plans to honor Narrative Science's existing OEM contracts and partnerships with other analytics vendors. According to Henschen, Tableau executives said they plan to be faithful to those existing Narrative Science deals, but many of those deals are with Tableau competitors.

Enterprise Strategy Group is a division of TechTarget.

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