Dashboards — Turning Information Into Actions

by Boris Evelson.

I get many questions on dashboards and scorecards and the role these tools play in BI (Business Intelligence). If we use Forrester’s definition of BI — a set of methodologies, processes, architectures, and technologies that transform raw data into meaningful and useful information — then we see that dashboards are just the tip of the BI iceberg. One cannot build “just a dashboard”, without considering, architecting and implementing  many other necessary BI layers and components such as data integration (ETL, data quality, etc), analytics (OLAP), metrics management, and many supporting components such as collaboration, knowledge management, metadata and master data management, and others. So that’s the first key takeaway: do not be fooled by 2nd tier dashboard vendor claims that one can implement an enterprise wide dashboard easily and inexpensively.

Let’s start with definitions, since I see the terms dashboards and scorecards used interchangeably:

  • Dashboards are just one style of interactive user interface, designed to deliver historical, current, and predictive information typically represented by key performance indicators (KPIs) using visual cues to focus user attention on important conditions, trends and exceptions.
  • Scorecards are a type of a dashboard which link KPIs to goals, objectives and strategies. Many scorecards follow a certain methodology, such as Balanced Scorecard, Six Sigma, Capability Maturity Models, etc.
  • Other types of dashboards include Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) dashboards and visualizations of data / text mining operations.

Today’s dashboards are no longer static graphs and charts. Best of breed dashboards implement 6 necessary components of so called ADV – Advanced Data Visualization:

  • Visual/Actionable GUI
  • Visual Query
  • Dynamic Data Content
  • Multiple Linked Visualizations
  • Animation
  • Geospatial Representations

But even ADV is not enough for turning information into decisions and actions – which is really what dashboards (and BI) is all about:

  • Yesterday’s dashboards contained historical information, were refreshed by, at best, on a daily basis and supported mostly strategic decisions based on historical data and trends
  • Today’s dashboards are more about real time situation assessments that support not just strategic, but also tactical and sometimes even operational decisions
  • Tomorrow's dashboards will be imbedded into everyday business processes and will enable users not just make decisions but take immediate actions and see the results of their actions in real time.

What are the key parameters to consider when implementing a dashboard solution? Ensure that your dashboard architecture supports the following functional requirements:

  • All ADV functions
  • All standard chart types (thermometer, gas gage, street light, etc)
  • Custom chart types (business specific images, non-standard maps – yes, I’ve seen high tech countries like India and Israel assigned to North American sales regions!)
  • High degree of personalization
  • Combination of structured data and unstructured content, process and data visualizations
  • Actionable information

The following technical considerations are also key:

  • Evaluate RIA (Rich Internet Applications) architecture alternatives (Ajax vs. Adobe Flex)
  • Make sure dashboard architecture is compatible with your choice of browsers (IE, Mozilla, Netscape, Firefox, Safari, Opera)
  • Address mobile / disconnected users requirements
  • Remember that browser based (HTML only) dashboards have many limitations. Consider alternate technologies – plug in (player such as Flash/Flex, Microsoft Silverlight)) or desktop / client-based solutions (JavaFX).

And last, but not least, remember that today’s and future applications, including dashboards, must be “designed for people and built for change”!

Comments

re: Dashboards — Turning Information Into Actions

You are definitely on to something when you say that dashboards are only the "tip of the iceberg". I report on many dashboard implementation projects on the blog Dashboards by Example located at http://www.enterprise-dashboard.com and can cite example after example of seemingly "simple" dashboard projects that turn out to be massive data integration struggles. However, given the right motivation and proper IT support, the joys of business intelligence that dashboards can provide make it all worth while.Check the blog for hundreds of examples of business intelligence dashboards.Regards The Dashboard Spy

re: Dashboards — Turning Information Into Actions

With every improvement or strategic movement, you have to keep the customer in mind. We cannot prescribe dashboard framework to an organization, but need to evaluate the best approach for each level of "audience". For the shop floor employees, animation might work out well, but simple charts might communicate info more rapidly as they pass the timeclock, for example. Dashboards are "shows", and whatever format captivates the audience is the one to use - and this will change over time within a given sample.