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In Praise of Dashboard Ubiquity

Effective dashboardization has real and tangible effects -- at least three of them in fact.

Why do many industry watchers believe that the dashboardization of the enterprise is all but a fait accompli?

There are the obvious reasons, of course: for one thing, dashboards are frequently championed by business sponsors, which helps ensure strong top-down support for dashboard deployment efforts. In addition, there’s the silver bullet factor: the dashboard as a user interface just works; it’s immediately intelligible to just about anyone, regardless of their role or responsibilities.

But the real driver for dashboard success, and the main reason why the dashboard will become not just an indispensable tool, is that effective dashboardization has real and tangible effects: at least three of them, actually, according to TDWI director of education Wayne Eckerson. The dashboards of today help organizations communicate strategy, monitor and adjust the execution of strategy, and deliver insights and information to all.

Eckerson isn’t just talking about any old dashboard, of course. He has a very specific kind of dashboard in mind—the so-called performance dashboard—which uses BI technologies to apply performance management techniques on a larger (enterprise-wide) scale. Properly implemented, such performance dashboards “provide executives with a powerful means to communicate key strategies and objectives continuously by tailoring metrics to each employee based on his or her role and level in the organizations,” Eckerson writes.

In this respect, he likens dashboards and their scorecard ilk to “agents of organizational change,” inasmuch as they help executives “get the entire organization marching in a coordinated fashion toward the same destination.”

That’s just the beginning. Once executives have clearly defined their goals (and developed dashboard strategies designed to disseminate and drive alignment with these goals), dashboards and scorecards give executives a means to monitor the execution of these strategies—in most cases, on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis. “These performance management systems enable executives to work proactively and identify and address critical problems undermining progress before it’s too late to fix them,” Eckerson writes.

That’s where the dashboard’s trump card—near-universal intelligibility—comes into play. Unlike Excel spreadsheets, charts, graphs, or even some scorecards, a dashboard’s view can be customized so as to edify all user classes. “The applications graphically highlight exception conditions and alerts, and let users drill down into more detailed data to find the root cause of a problem. These [dashboards] conform to the way users work and don’t force users to conform to the way BI tools work,” Eckerson points out. “This is a major reason dashboards and scorecards are so popular today.”

One problem is that the dashboard has become a victim of its own runaway success, its significance diluted by an abundance of crude, first-generation efforts that in many cases have amounted to little more than eye candy for admiring executive eyes. Eckerson says the performance dashboard has a more sophisticated construct, comprising multilayered performance management systems built on top of a BI and data integration infrastructure, thus enabling organizations to measure, monitor, and manage business activity on the basis of financial and non-financial metrics alike.

“Dashboards and scorecards provide more than just a screen populated with fancy performance graphics,” Eckerson writes. “[T]hey are full-fledged business information systems designed to help organizations achieve strategic objectives. They help measure the past, monitor the present, and forecast the future, allowing an organization to adjust its strategy and tactics in real time to optimize performance.”

So how best to separate the dashboard wheat from the also-ran chaff? Look for the “three threes,” says Eckerson: Performance dashboards must support at least three simultaneous activities (monitoring, reporting/analysis, and dashboard management); consist of three layers (i.e., graphical, summary, and detail data views); and come in three types (operational dashboards, tactical dashboards, and strategic dashboards.)

All the same, a dashboard’s three constituent applications don’t have to take the form of three discrete programs, says Eckerson. Instead, the dashboard’s three core applications can consist of sets of related functionality built on top of an information infrastructure that’s designed to support monitoring, analysis, and management. As for the three layers—graphical, summary, and detail data views—of any performance dashboard worth its salt, Eckerson likens these to the proverbial peeling of an onion. Graphical data makes it easy for users to quickly monitor key performance metrics; summarized dimensional data helps users analyze the root causes of problems; and detailed operational data helps identify the actions decision-makers can take to resolves problems.

“Like peeling the layers of an onion, a performance management system lets users peel back layers of information to get to the root cause of a problem,” Eckerson writes. “Each successive layer provides additional details, views, and perspective that enable users to understand a problem and identify the steps they must take to address it.”

Finally, Eckerson says, there are three different dashboard types for three different classes of dashboard user. Operational dashboards, for example, track core operational processes and typically display more real-time data. Their emphasis is more on monitoring than analysis or management. Tactical dashboards, on the other hand, track departmental processes and projects and emphasize analysis more than either management or monitoring. “They are often implemented using portals and run against data marts or warehouses where data is loaded periodically,” Eckerson comments.

Strategic dashboards—aka, the darlings of the executive-class—monitor the execution of corporate strategic objectives at each level of an organization. They emphasize management more than monitoring or analysis. They’re often implemented using the Balanced Scorecard methodology and, as a result, can loosely be described as “scorecards.”

“An organization can and should have multiple versions of each type of dashboard… each focused on different business problems or functional areas. Ideally, these dashboards are all built on a single data infrastructure and application platform to deliver consistent performance information throughout the enterprise,” Eckerson says. That’s the easy part, of course.

The reality, he concedes, is that few dashboard efforts are ever this concerted: “few companies stay ahead of the wave of dashboard implementation. To avoid creating silos of information, organizations should coordinate these efforts using an enterprise program office, a BI competency center, and/or a governance program. Otherwise, they’ll be forced to consolidate these diverse, non-integrated dashboards after the fact, which is challenging and costly.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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