Dashboards as the New Face of Business Intelligence (BI)
OK, we’ve all heard the cliche’. Dashboards are the new face of BI. But as you recall from the first time you met your mother-in-law, a new face is not necessarily a friendly face. For a face to be affable–and for a dashboard to be friendly to your business–there are a few requisites that need to be in place.
Or let’s look at it from another angle. Some think that a corporate dashboard has magical properties. It’s like a business talisman: just get it and in no time your mug will be simpering pompously from the cover of Forbes magazine. No, I didn’t think so either.
Truth is, a business intelligence dashboard is not all that different from the dashboard in your car. To be useful, it must make you drive better, keep you comfortable and tell you when you’re running out of gas, but without distracting you. Now that we’re done with the similes, let’s look at the top-five do’s and don’ts of dashboard implementation to make sure your dashboard doesn’t end up looking like the face of the last cop who pulled you over… oops, there I go again.
Do 1: Let the Dashboard Be Business-driven and Focused
Ask yourself: what competitive goals are you trying to achieve through this tool? What specific processes are you trying to make more efficient? What critical information are you trying to make more readily available and why? Be ruthlessly specific. The more surgically you zero in on precise tactics, the better your chance to achieve your strategy.
Example: you want the inventory of the top-10 SKUs to always remain optimal, so that you’re not out of goods while never getting overstocked. You set up a dashboard that shows this information in intuitive eyeful–in graphic form and of course in real time.
Don’t make the dashboard into a less unprofessional version of solitaire. Too much freedom and too little focus, and your users will spend time on it for entertainment with your BI investment going to waste.
Do 2: Let the KPI Be Your Friend
What’s a KPI? It’s a key performance indicator–a handy little color-coded dot or gauge that “indicates” if your “key” items are “performing” well or if they’re headed for the dogs. Set a threshold (e.g. minimum month-to-date sales) for the critical items; when you’re on the good side of the threshold, the KPI shows you a green dot–all A-OK. When you’re on the wrong side of the threshold, the KPI turns red–time to take action.
Example: so you want to have an optimal in-stock level of your top 10 SKUs. Have 10 KPIs that alert you without even having to read numbers. Green: all is going well. Red: either too much or too little inventory.
Don’t turn your dashboard into the single-screen version of those darned multiple-sheet Excel tables, where you have to sort through more figures than an IRS goon (no offense to IRS goons) just to see if you’re making your numbers. Use eye-friendly KPIs when possible.
Do 3: Make Your Dashboard Actionable
The thermostat in your car reads 38 degrees. Great. Does knowing that make you any warmer? Not unless you can plonk the temp-control lever all the way to red. Get it? Without being able to act on what you see, a dashboard is as useful as than the morning paper. Give yourself the power to see the information, understand what it means to your goals and act on it without leaving the application.
Example: one of your inventory-level KPIs is red. Time to reorder. Instead of leaving the application, looking up the vendor, entering another program and placing the order, you just click on the “reorder” button right from your dashboard. Voila’.
As you implement BI, don’t foster a culture of “knowers.” Foster one of “doers.” Remember that it’s actions that impact the bottom line, and that knowledge is only the prerequisite.
Do 4: It’s a Web, Web World, although…
With the Web taking over the world of BI, it’s become chic to malign desktop applications. Yes, having dashboards on the Web is almost essential today, making it easier to access them, share them and work on them from virtually anywhere. However, the best Web-based dashboards still retain the features of a desktop application–flexible, easy to use, powerful, interactive, with that “dedicated” feel to them.
Example: you should be able to move your panels around without refreshing the screen (thanks to technologies like AJAX), plus drill down, drill through and have eye-candy like Flash-powered charts and graphs.
Don’t set up a Web-based dashboard that looks and feels like an Internet site from 10 years ago–a static, read-only specie that we should push to extinction with the same collective determination as we did the mullet and the Pee Wee Herman show.
Do 5: Make Dashboard Available to Everyone
Us BI industry insiders may not realize it, but it’s still out there. That culture where reporting and analysis is the domain of a few techies or upper management. For it to be useful, a dashboard should be available to every decision-maker in your company. And if you are smart about the way you manage your people, most your employees should be treated as decision makers.
Example: there’s no reason why your warehouse managers, your HR personnel, all your sales-force and your finance
Don’t end up paying through the nose for tens of user’s licenses, or worse yet, tens of user’s licenses that end up unused because of failed adoption. Shop for a vendor that allows you to deploy dashboards to unlimited users–e.g. through a server-based licensing model.
In the end, remember that the dashboard is just a tool. The easier it is to use, and the more directly it makes your employers’ life easier, the more it will be adopted. And the more it is adopted, the more positively it will impact your business.