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Dashboards: The New Face of BI

  • December 10 2008, 1:47pm EST

In many ways, a business intelligence dashboard is no different than the dashboard in your car. It keeps you informed of your car’s (read: business’) performance and alerts you when you’re running out of gas (read: money). In order to truly benefit your business, a great dashboard needs to be designed to meet four important criteria.

Four Essentials of Dashboards

When you design and create your dashboard project, there are four main elements that will define the success or failure of your project:

  1. Data,
  2. The user interface and visual representation,
  3. Performance and
  4. Dashboard management.

As with all BI, the metrics included on a dashboard are only as good and reliable as the data they're drawing from. If your data isn’t useful, reliable and high quality, your dashboard won’t be either. The good news is that good dashboard solutions make perfectly efficient use of middle-tier data and can collect and process data from multiple sources.

Another important factor about your data is its visual representation. You can choose colors and fonts that are consistent with your company’s brand or perhaps just the favorites of the boss you want to impress. But data visualization capabilities can and should be more than just aesthetically appealing; they should enhance the functional communication of your data. Often deemphasized in the dashboard implementation process, proper data visualization enables you to present your most important metrics in a fashion that is not only visually appealing but is clearly communicated. By designing your dashboard so that low inventory numbers are presented in a large and/or brightly colored box, for instance, you enable the user to simply and effectively read the data and to take immediate action.

Now you’re ready to equip your team with a dashboard that is user-friendly and easy to read, but how’s the performance? Remember, people are impatient, especially when it comes to technology. If your company Web site takes 45 seconds to load each time a potential customer tries to visit it, you’re likely to lose a lot of business. Similarly, your dashboard needs to be designed with performance in mind so that you don’t lose the efficiencies its implementation was meant to gain. In order to act on key metrics quickly and easily, employees need to be able to access the information quickly and easily. Caching data, such as through a data mart or in memory, will address end-user performance concerns for dashboard elements that are frequently accessed.

Of equal importance is the establishment of a good dashboard management system to enable nontechnical users to add or remove users and groups, assign data sets and panels to different users and groups, and to monitor additional statistics that ensure better utilization of the application.

Although not specifically listed as one of the four essential elements, it’s a given that security is important. Most dashboard projects require user and role-based security, and providing single sign on capabilities will also serve as an important factor in the ease of use of your dashboards.

What other characteristics of dashboards do we need to look at?

In general, dashboards have become a wildly popular reporting and analysis tool. Their versatility, ease of use, and cross-industry relevance make dashboards a valuable addition to most any business. Today’s BI market offers many dashboard products to choose from so it’s important to understand that not all are created equal. The best dashboards give you more power and more choice with less effort. With this in mind, consider the following key areas when evaluating a dashboard solution for your business:

Dashboards should be business-driven and focused.

Your IT department should certainly be a part of your purchasing decision, but don’t lose sight of the fact that dashboards are a business tool, not a technological one. Your employees need to track factors that drive the business and be able to act accordingly, so be sure that your business needs and strategies are represented as leading factors when purchasing and designing dashboards.

Ask yourself what competitive goals you’re trying to achieve through this tool. What specific processes do you need to make more efficient? What critical information would you like to make more readily available and why? Your marketing department probably tracks completely different metrics than your HR department does so your dashboards need to be adaptable to individual needs.

The more specifically you understand your goals, the more efficiently you’ll design your dashboards, and the more effective they will be in improving your bottom line.

Let the KPI be your friend.

A key performance indicator provides at-a-glance insight into whether or not your key performance metrics are on track. By setting your dashboard to include thresholds for critical metrics, you will know at a glance and in real time when you’ve dipped below your target. If know that you need to order more paper when your inventory dips below 500 cartons, for example, your KPI for this metric will turn red when it reaches 499, enabling you to take immediate action.

Be careful, though. A common pitfall in the use of KPIs is the “more is better” mentality. In the case of KPIs, such is definitely not the case. Having too many will cause you to lose the truly important information in the clutter, so be sure to limit information to what’s most important.

Make your dashboard actionable.

Without the ability to take action on the KPIs, a dashboard might just as well be a PowerPoint slide. Using the car dashboard example, knowing that you’re going 55 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour zone would serve little purpose if there was nothing you could do as a result of having this knowledge. Just as you can touch the brake pedal and slow down, an actionable dashboard allows you to click a button in response to your BI dashboard’s indicators. Empower yourself to view the information and act on it without leaving the application.

For example: one of your inventory-level KPIs is red. Set your dashboard so you can just click a reorder button, alleviating the time it takes to leave the application, look up the vendor, enter another program and place the order.

It’s a Web, Web World, Although...

The best Web-based dashboards still retain the features of a desktop application, but this is not true of all the products on the market today. Be sure your dashboard product offers power, flexibility, ease of use and is interactive. You should be able to move your panels around without refreshing the screen, drill down for more detailed information and drill through for Flash-powered charts and graphs.

Make Dashboards Available to Everyone

A truly useful dashboard can be made available to every employee in your company if you need it to be. All of your employees should have access to dashboards if that’s what is needed to run a more efficient business.

Modern BI products make it simple and easy for you to provide anyone and everyone with a single and consistent version of the truth. Shop for a vendor whose products enable you to deploy dashboards to unlimited users and allow your end users to start creating Web-based dashboards in hours, reports in minutes and analysis on demand.

A dashboard is a tool that, used to its potential, has the ability to benefit your business almost immediately. It will be widely adopted if it is easy to use, has robust features and functionality, and is affordable to deploy pervasively. And the more it is adopted, the more positively it will impact your business.

Like most things, dashboards need to be maintained. Diligent and insightful management of your system is paramount in ensuring the continued use and effectiveness of your dashboard. Stay on top of performance issues, work to continually improve data retrieval time, track usage statistics for possible (if not necessary) improvements and provide single sign on capabilities. Dashboards are only as good as you make them. You’d be surprised how many companies spend money on a dashboarding tool and never fully leverage it, resulting in the entire process having been a waste of both time and money. Don’t let that happen in your company.

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