Wait Is on for Next-Gen Dashboards
Are next-gen dashboards too good to be true? It all depends on what you mean by "dashboard," industry watchers say.
Dashboards are by no means a new thing; Nor—for this reason—could they ever amount to a Next Big Thing.
But a number of industry watchers—including TDWI director of research and services Wayne Eckerson—have talked up the emergence of a new kind of dashboard, one that’s simultaneously more insightful and more aligned with business strategy. Sound too good to be true? Think again: such dashboards are profiled—as pixelating, frequently refreshing case studies—in Eckerson’s recent book (Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business), and—if Eckerson and other industry watchers are to be believed—they’re starting to become more common, if not pervasive.
"Dashboards have become more common. It's the way a majority of underserved BI users prefer to view information, especially executives and managers. Most companies have a dashboard and/or scorecard initiative," Eckerson comments.
However, one of the biggest bulwarks to pervasive dashboard deployment and uptake is installation and configuration: simply put, Eckerson and other experts say, building, installing, and configuring a dashboard such that it yields insightful (and frequently refreshed) information has proven to be prohibitively difficult.
While this hasn’t necessarily changed—particularly for adopters who choose a go-it-yourself approach to dashboard deployment—the growing availability of highly configurable packaged solutions has helped to level the playing field, Eckerson says. "I… still believe that commercial software vendors will begin to produce more robust dashboard and scorecard solutions that will alleviate the need for companies to build their own solutions… which has been the dominant trend to date," he avers.
Not everyone is as sanguine about the dashboardization of the enterprise. Independent data warehouse consultant Mark Madsen, a member of TDWI’s research collaborative, questions the value of dashboards which—all too often, he argues—are deployed for dashboarding’s sake. "From what I've seen, dashboard is the new report. People are calling reports ‘dashboards’ or ‘scorecards.’ I'm working with a company now that uses all three terms. They're using [Hyperion] Web Intelligence and [Business Object’s] dashboard tools, so almost everything is a glorified report, right down to the layout."
This obviously isn’t the kind of dashboard that Eckerson and other visionaries have in mind, Madsen concedes, but it is frequently the kind of dashboard users and their executive masters wind up getting—in part, he suggests, because they don’t know enough to demand anything different. "I think a lot of end-users are still in the report mindset. Couple that with tools which don't make it easy to flow from one level to another, or one area to another, and immature IT development practices for BI and we have a continuation of what we've always done," he argues. "It's hard to change direction when everyone is so used to ideas of how things have always been done. The fact that the tools don't integrate leaves us with silos [of] BI technology and frustrates both users and IT."
In this respect, Madsen argues, information consumers (a category that includes both users and their executive masters) are ill-served by many services firms, who pitch to corporate decision-makers the idea of easy-to-implement (i.e., pain-free) dashboards—which in most cases are little more than glorified reports.
"Consulting companies have all jumped on the dashboard bandwagon and are making the BI job harder," says Madsen. "They've pushed the dashboard/scorecard concepts to senior management, who then say ‘Make it so.’ Unfortunately, they aren't aware of the state their data infrastructure is in. So the dashboard gets 75 percent of the data from the data warehouse, and 25 percent from spreadsheets, [or] manually entered data, [as well as] queries or EII on OLTP sources, [which leads] to the inevitable ‘How come I can't drill down?’ questions."
Madsen doesn’t wax entirely pessimistic about the advent of next-gen dashboards. While most of the BI heavies (as well as their hands-on business partners) might be "stuck in a rut," he argues, there’s an opportunity for scrappy start-ups to harness a number of new technologies to take dashboards beyond the realm of glorified reporting. "There are many new ways to look at and explore information coming out of universities, art schools and Web startups," he concludes. "I've been playing around with some of the code and it's getting more sophisticated every month. I think we'll be seeing more ‘BI 2.0’ startups taking advantage of the problems the bigger BI vendors face as they try to move out of the basic reporting realm."
We’ll take a more in-depth look at next-gen dashboards next week, using – as a point of departure—TDWI’s own research into the breadth and depth of dashboardization in the enterprise today. Stay tuned.
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.