Dashboards 2.0: New Apps Touted as Fast and Furious
Come this time next year, dashboard kludginess could very well be in the rear-view mirror.
It seems like we’ve been waiting on fully functional, richly interactive, plug-and-play dashboards for an eternity now. Or for half a decade, at least.
There’s been plenty of bluster from the BI vendor community, but the era of easy-to-install, richly interactive dashboards is still very much the stuff of pipedreams. To be sure, BI players have been talking up dashboard-driven simplicity for years now, but—as many would-be dashboarders have discovered—there’s often a gulf between a vendor’s ideal and a customer’s reality.
Come this time next year, however, dashboard kludginess could very well be a thing of the past. That’s because a new generation of dashboards is in the offing. And while rolling out these NextGen dashboards still won’t be as easy as kiss my hand, the dashboards of tomorrow will be easier to configure and deploy. Call them Dashboards 2.0.
“Dashboarding is becoming not only a mainstay of corporate life, but the BI technologies to support dashboarding are continually being refined and getting better, too,” says Sanju Bansal, chief operating officer of MicroStrategy Inc. What kind of refinement does Bansal have in mind? Personalization: “Dashboarding has been and will continue to become much more personalized,” he argues.
TDWI director Wayne Eckerson is a big proponent of next-generation dashboards. Last October, for example, Eckerson published his newest book, Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business. Eckerson’s tome mostly deals with cobbling together functional, rich, and highly informative dashboards based on technologies and practices that are available today. At the same time, however, he’s enthusiastic about what’s coming down the pike dashboard-wise, in 2006 and beyond.
Right now, Eckerson concedes, most dashboards are simply replacements for hand-crafted Excel-reports that (a) aren’t aligned to corporate strategies, (b) contain independently defined terms and rules, and (c) aren’t actionable or proactive. But (a), (b), and (c) are about to change, he says.
“Dashboards and scorecards have already become the way that business users prefer to gather insights and consume actionable information. They love to be able to view their key metrics at a glance to see if there is something that needs their attention,” he comments. “The next generation of dashboards and scorecards will align themselves with strategic objectives defined in a strategy document and laid out in a strategy map that correlates the relationships among value drivers and the metrics that measure them.”
According to Eckerson, NextGen dashboards will use consistent definitions (at all levels of an organization, and across different units) and rules to calculate metrics, which are defined to influence metrics at the organizational level above. “The dashboards and scorecards will contain more detailed, timely data to support proactive intervention and leverage alerts to notify users when there is something that warrants their attention,” he indicates.
MicroStrategy’s Bansal agrees. Dashboards are becoming richer, more functional, and more valuable, at least with respect to their ability to deliver timely, accurate data. Of course, you’d expect a vendor like MicroStrategy to say as much—but to a large degree, Bansal argues, MicroStrategy and other BI majors aren’t ahead of the market on this one.
“We saw dashboards a few years ago as the provisioning of data to corporate executives, and they were all happy to see the same data,” he comments. “But in 2005, we found that customers were asking for something subtly but profoundly different—that is, they wanted 10,000 personalized, individualized dashboards with their own metrics and their own data feeding them. That’s a BI infrastructure problem rather than a dashboard problem.”
The difference, Bansal argues, is significant: Dashboards 1.0 focused on putting a pretty face on a few (often bland) metrics; Dashboards 2.0, on the other hand, are all about delivering an infrastructure—complete with service-oriented hooks—that can support rich dashboard functionality. MicroStrategy took some important steps in that direction last year with the release of its eponymous 8.0 BI suite, Bansal says—hinting that MicroStrategy might make some dashboard-related announcements at its MicroStrategy World user conference this week. More to the point, Bansal’s competitors have also rediscovered dashboards, too: At each of last year’s major BI platform announcements, Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., and Hyperion Solutions Corp. trumpeted the dashboarding capabilities of their BI suites as—in so many words—The Dashboard Reborn.
Not everyone is convinced, of course. One skeptic is TDWI research collaborator Cindi Howson, a principal with BIScorecard.com. On its face, the dashboard is an excellent idea, Howson agrees. In practice, however, the dashboard is an idea that has rarely lived up to its hype—in part because it has so often been feted as the harbinger of universal BI. “One thing I don’t think the industry has solved is this: we keep talking about ‘BI for the masses.’ I hate that term because we’ve been saying that for 10 to 15 years. I want BI to be like TiVo or Google. I want it to be that easy to use,” comments Howson, who says that dashboards—while tantalizing—have also proven difficult to build. “Customers want something that’s easy—but no one [thing] has come up.”
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.