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Paradise by the dashboard

Paradise by the dashboard

The truth is out there. Dashboard applications in corporate performance management are driving business intelligence to new levels of importance by offering higher, faster degrees of understanding.

How well is your business perform-ing right now? How has performance changed in the past five minutes? There are clear limits to the capabilities of traditional enterprise reporting tools but the emergence of "dashboard" applications and interfaces provides major intelligence benefits through at-a-glance access to performance knowledge. With business intelligence becoming more important across areas from customer service management to operational resourcing, delivering the best reporting tools possible at every level of business is a key to maintaining or creating a competitive advantage.

The theory behind dashboard applic-ations is that faster access to intelligence helps combat the classic issue of slow reaction speeds in large enterprises. And as a data-reporting layer, not a complete systems overhaul, the costs involved are far from prohibitive.

Dashboards exist to deliver reports tailored to the needs of each user. A CEO, for example, may be most interested in high-level summary reporting, regional managers may look to more granular area breakdowns to assess specific resourcing issues, and sales and finance may look to generate task-specific reports.

Particular levels of reporting can also be restricted to levels of staff. Reports can be constructed easily by individual users using drag-and-drop or query functions, so there is no major investment of time in getting what you need from your data sources.

With clean and simple graphical presentation of data - using metaphors such as gauges and thermometers, and classics such as pie charts and bar graphs - important details can be viewed quickly with at-a-glance access. Should something be amiss in any particular area, it will theoretically stick out like a sore thumb and be much more instantly apparent than if you are trying to decipher reams of raw-number reporting.

The presentation system also enhances your ability to view many different knowledge areas at once, giving quick access to additional detail through click-through options that let you drill down into specific areas to pinpoint any issues that may exist - or to see what one area is doing right that others are not. This is perhaps the number one aspect that can differentiate an average dashboarding tool set from a great one.

With many dashboard tools now offering web-based interfaces, there is no need to install desktop applications. This not only makes for quick access to your dashboards from anywhere you need to be, but also offers an enhanced ability to share dashboards with colleagues as report layouts are based on the server. Knowledge sharing in global corporations can benefit greatly here.

From web services to standard software suites, many applications are delivering dashboards and scorecards as a reporting interface option. It is, in essence, a reporting layer that can be attached to almost any data source - information across customer relationships, supply chain, sales, marketing, finance, communications - or any knowledge base can be invoked in a dashboard to deliver clearer intelligence.

These kinds of dashboards have been appearing within many traditional application suites in all these fields for some time, and hundreds of businesses already use them at various levels of management.

However, it is corporate performance management where dashboards are driving business intelligence to new levels of importance by offering an even higher level of understanding on the underlying business practices. At this level, senior management can be delivered rapid-fire access to exactly the kind of meta-level knowledge they need to make big decisions on overarching corporate concerns.

Matthew Hill, director of business intelligence systems provider Cortell, says New Zealand businesses are at the stage where they are ready to implement scorecard or dashboard systems in the next year or two.

Cortell recently surveyed a variety of potential customers and found a tenth already had such scorecards or dashboards, with 40 per cent looking to implement an off-the-shelf product in the coming year, 40 per cent looking to develop an internal system, with a remaining 10 per cent not interested.

"It is something they want to do in the next 12 to 15 months but they are hesitant about getting the data right first, getting their data clean and putting it into a repository so they can put it into a dashboard or scorecard - the last step of business intelligence," says Hill.

Indeed, this is confirmed by the progress of dashboard or scorecard projects highlighted below.

Two years ago, New Zealand Post selected TM1 from vendor Applix, with Cortell as the provider to develop an integrated budgeting, planning and reporting model. The model covered the six divisions of NZ Post with information consolidated to give one overall picture.

Project manager Graham Henderson says TM1 was chosen to give an automated system, using a 'writeback' ability that gives templates to divisional heads who input their information which then feeds through the system to give across the board intelligence for senior management.

The installation of scorecards nine months ago followed the initial TM1 installation two years ago, so for Henderson it was a matter of leveraging off a previous investment with new functionality.

"We give a template (of key performance indicators) to each of the metric's owner. Each month they enter their numbers into the template. That writes into the TM1 database and automatically collects data. There is a family of scorecards where we have a total NZ Post view. There is another set of scorecards with a lower level of metrics for each division," he says.

For example, information like company survey results for employee satisfaction can be viewed across the whole company, while other data, may just suit individual divisions.

Henderson says the scorecards save the need for a regular "ring-around" NZ Post for the data. Much manual processing of data is avoided thanks to the writeback facility which allows the easy presentation of data, using Excel spreadsheets, that links into the database.

"These projects need a business sponsor and champion, especially for scorecarding. It is a chore, but if the organisation is half-hearted, they won't bother," he says.

Typically, scorecards follow other BI implementations, and if you don't have the data readily available and reliable, the scorecards won't be used with credibility, adds Henderson.

The Port of Taranaki also uses TM1 to cope with the "spreadsheet hell" of dealing with Excel-based information from various divisions.

IT manager Mark Brennan says the New Plymouth-based port is looking to adopt a scorecard or dashboard-based system so it can assess KPIs sometime this year.

"You need initial business intelligence tools as building blocks. We have just been briefly looking at them though the drivers for a big system were not there. TM1 addresses operational procedures. Scoreboards will be able to click into that too," adds Brennan.

Dimond, a building supplies division of Fletcher Building, went live in November with the Powerplay and Reportnet system from Cognos partner CDP.

"Powerplay is basically a cube where you can go in and slice and dice your information. Reportnet is creating our reports for publication. Evidently, Cognos has a dashboard tool. We haven't taken this on board as we are doing this ourselves. We will use Reportnet to do this ourselves and develop our own dashboards," explains commercial manager Robbie Shaw.

Shaw says Dimond uses an ERP system called BPCS from SSA Global and the company downloads information for that onto a SQL server.

"At this stage we are focused on sales information because it is a key driver for us - delivery on time, on specification, meeting our promises. Rather than bring everything down at the moment, we focus on a couple of key areas, as we learn the system, we will expand the functions," he explains.

Shaw says when selecting the system, considerations included making the system easy-to-use right from the CEO down to the sales representative. It also had to be easily expandable and upgradeable and easy to disseminate quickly across New Zealand using Dimond's Citrix environment. Fast, drill-down capabilities are also important.

"If you are going to have a dashboard or scorecard you need to have the ability to have access to cubes or a database where you can slice and dice information. Otherwise, all the dashboard will tell you is that you are speeding without the data behind it. We found that the ease of creating reports was a bit of a danger. All this information led to us creating too many reports. Try and focus on what you are trying to achieve," he says.

Shaw also advises that before implementing scorecard systems you also need to ensure the details of reports are appropriate - such as more detail at lower levels. It is important to ensure the data is "clean". Firms also need to see how appropriate such technology is for serving external customers, as these projects tend to be internally driven, and stakeholders must have buy-in.

"We were surprised at the need for information. Staff demanded different data to what we were wanting," he adds.

While there is a great deal of promise in all this, a recent Gartner report by Frank Buytendijk and Bill Gassman suggests it is important to ensure you make sound judgement calls on any demand for a dashboard from senior management.

The concept fills a similar function to the failed "executive information systems" idea of the mid to late 1980s. Nearing the peak of inflated expectation in Gartner's corporate performance management hype cycle, IT "should be prepared to argue against an incomplete, poorly considered initiative whose failure could harm the prospects of future business intelligence.

Like a plane cockpit

Nonetheless, Cortell's Matthew Hill confirms benefits from dashboards and scorecards of managers gaining quick overviews of the health of an organisation, revealing what might need instant attention.

But, while extolling their benefits, he offers this warning.

"We see a lot of dashboards that are whipped up in a quick way. Like the cockpit of a plane, it takes years to develop what the pilot needs to see in one view at a glance. The dashboard needs the same approach. It is not a matter of splashing colour and graphs around."

"Having the information on one screen is the key. Don't use excessive colour or multiple tabs as this removes the effectiveness of what the dashboard is designed for. Dashboards need not reflect real-time information, but certainly the timeliness of it, daily sales reports, weekly staff reports, etc," he continues.

"If you look at something of concern, the dashboard must be able to drill down and offer further analysis. The manager who may not be a technical user, must be able to drill into that graph, see the data underneath and take appropriate action," he concludes.

Dashboards versus scorecards

Generally speaking, dashboards are directed more towards real-time data stream reporting, while scorecards have a broader historic focus to their report structure.

However, there is often confusion over any difference between dashboards and scorecards as they offer similar graphical reporting systems on data feeds.

Whether an agreed definitional difference exists isn't entirely clear either, although definitions would be beneficial as there are differences in tool sets available, each with their own strengths.

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