Big Blue Gets Dashboard Fever

If vendor interest is any indication, dashboards are hot. In fact, they're positively sizzling, which may explain why IBM is jumping into the fray.

If vendor interest is any indication, dashboards are hot. Last month, for example, Cognos Inc. trumpeted a substantially revamped dashboard feature set during its Cognos 8 BI platform launch. In a few weeks, dashboard evangelist Hyperion Solutions Corp. is expected to tout its own dashboard credentials when it unveils its upcoming BI platform release.

Sometime this month, IBM Corp. will get into the act, too, with a dashboard-friendly version of its ubiquitous WebSphere Portal product, called WebSphere Portal for Business Strategy Execution.

Experts say the move represents a what’s-good-for-the-goose-is-good-for-the-gander perspective by corporate decision-makers. Executives have long had access to dashboard-like information delivery, in the form of so-called executive information systems (EIS), says Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing and business intelligence (BI) consultancy MAS Strategies. As green screen EISes gave way to graphical exception-alerting and other dashboard-like features, they’ve also been in the forefront of the dashboard craze. Now they’ve decided that rank-and-file workers need dashboards, too.

“EIS used to stand for executive information system, but nowadays it stands for everybody’s information system,” Schiff says. “You’ve got to have it, it’s got to be graphical, it’s got to be something that can be pervasive—it’s part of the movement to bring BI and analytics to the masses.”

Dashboards, proponents claim, address all of these requirements. They exploit intuitive devices—such as charts, graphs, stoplights, and speedometers—to convey an immediately intelligible snapshot of the wellness of key metrics. In this sense, some dashboard boosters claim, they’re like reporting on steroids.

“Dashboarding is just an extension of reporting—a more intuitive extension [of reporting],” says Michael Smith, senior product marketing manager with Cognos, who says Cognos’ dashboarding capability has a wide variety of uses, including as a project-management tool par excellence. “It goes beyond the traditional red/ yellow/green traffic light view. [Users want us to] show where the problems are. So we’ve implemented advanced initiative tracking through projects. We can reduce the lag time between when a problem is recognized and an actual corrective action has been implemented. We can associate reports that might give us additional information around this project.”

According to Bowstreet Inc., an application development and portal tools provider, executives have dashboards on the brain. The company recently tapped market researcher Hurwitz and Associates to survey more than 100 CIOs, IT directors, and IT managers at mid-sized and large U.S. companies.

Bowstreet says IT decision-makers are seeing bona fide results from their dashboard investments. Fully 40 percent of companies surveyed said they’d realized improved customer satisfaction as a result of their dashboard implementations, and an additional 40 percent attributed improvements in profitability to their dashboard deployments.

According to the survey, 50 percent of companies said they’ve saved $500,000 to $1,000,000 as a result of implementing dashboards. In addition, about 50 percent of adopters claim to have achieved ROI in less than one year.

That's music to executive ears, and most vendors at least tacitly acknowledge as much by marketing their dashboard offerings to executive sensibilities. Consider IBM’s WebSphere Portal for Business Strategy Execution pitch, which Big Blue hopes to sell to dashboard-hungry executives as a tool for business strategy alignment. The idea, officials say, is that organizations can custom-tailor dashboard views for individual employees, such that Jane C. Knowledge Worker will be able to quickly determine whether she’s meeting key business objectives. IBM positions its first-generation corporate dashboard offering as an adjunct to work many organizations are already doing with the balanced-scorecard approach and other performance-management metrics.

Doesn’t this take IBM onto well-trod ground? After all, Cognos, Hyperion, Business Objects SA, and other BI vendors have successfully marketed dashboard offerings for years. Cognos and Hyperion—joined, more recently, by Business Objects—have also been in the forefront of BPM, pushing BPM-oriented versions of their BI toolsets when such offerings had comparatively few takers. More to the point, the dashboard isn’t a thing unto itself; in most cases, it’s a quickly digestible abstraction of data that’s unearthed by sophisticated BI and business performance management (BPM) tools in the back-end. Thanks to its WebSphere data integration stack, however, Big Blue can promise canned connectivity into most of the same data sources used by these tools.

In any event, IBM isn’t alone. Earlier this year, Microsoft Corp. announced a new BPM and scorecarding product of its own, code-named “Maestro.” Like several of Microsoft’s client BI tools, Maestro—which is a product of Microsoft’s Information Worker Business group—is tightly coupled with Redmond’s Office productivity suite (see In this regard, says Schiff, WebSphere Portal for Business Strategy Execution might signify the mainstreaming of the dashboard.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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