The Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Dashboard-ization
Dashboards and scorecards now comprise powerful tools for monitoring and alignment. The trick, experts say, is to know which technology to use, and why.
According to some proponents, a new generation of dashboards and scorecards will help usher in the convergence of business intelligence (BI) and performance management (PM).
One upshot of this, advocates argue, is that next-gen dashboards and scorecards now comprise powerful tools for monitoring and alignment.
The trick, experts say, is to know which technology to use—and why.
Dashboards, for one thing, have momentum going for them. They’re growing ever easier to use and deploy. They’re applicable to a wide variety of usage scenarios—for users at every level of an organization. And they have a monitoring function that scorecards—with their strategy-linked raison-d’etre—simply don’t provide. Moreover, advocates argue, organizations can exploit a range of different connectivity options—including service-orientation and Web services standards—to not only embed dashboards into new applications, but to tie (or invoke) dashboards into existing applications. As a result, backers say, dashboards and dashboardization will only grow more ubiquitous over time.
“More and more [organizations] are coming around to this [view],” said Leah MacMillan, vice-president of product marketing with BI giant Cognos Inc., in an interview earlier this year. “It’s not just the view, though. The tools [to effectively implement] dashboards are much better, too. With Celequest [a dashboard specialist that Cognos acquired earlier this year], we’re able to give our customers a best-of-breed capability that really is easy to deploy.”
Celequest, for example, developed a dashboard appliance, formerly dubbed Lava, which Cognos now dubs Cognos Now! According to Cognos officials, Now! promises a more-or-less turnkey deployment scenario, with built-in connectivity to a mix of different data sources, as well as best-of-breed display and rendering capabilities.
“This ability to [expose and] bring in data from all these different sources means you can get the right information to the right user at the right time. And that frequently means real-time. So it’s enabling not just power users to have this sort of actionable information, but managers and executives and others, too,” MacMillan continued. “When you’ve got everyone on the same page—when everyone is seeing the information they need to have—that becomes a powerful tool for alignment. Then you’ve really got a means to implement and follow through on a business strategy.”
Cognos and its competitors seem anxious to downplay many of the more hype-ish aspects of the current dashboard wave. There’s a reason for this, says Kevin Brown, vice-president of marketing with data visualization and dashboard specialist Tableau Software Inc.: in a lot of ways, he argues, the dashboards of the past were oversold or over-promised, at least in terms of what they could accomplish on the implementation, connectivity, and alignment tips. Thanks to the mainstreaming of service-oriented architectures (SOA) and the growing dominance of Web services, this isn’t the issue it once was, Brown argues.
“We said to ourselves: ’Lots of dashboards exist in the world—how can we make this better?’ So we took the dashboard concept and made it fully Tableau-interactive. So you can create a dashboard from multiple data sources,” said Brown, in an interview this spring. The point isn’t so much that Tableau can deliver connectivity of this kind, Brown argues—it’s that the company could do so inexpensively and comparatively simply, in this case by taking advantage of its integration with Microsoft Corp.’s technology stack and open Web services standards.
“We’ve always had that [best-of-breed data visualization technology], but [with the new release of Tableau 3.0] we’re able to provide that in that easy-to-use interface, which is just so intuitive. With Dynamic Dashboards, it’s easy for [users] to drag and drop and basically pull in [data] from all these different sources. That’s something that just wasn’t possible a couple of years ago. It really changes what you can do.”
Vendors aren’t the only ones with cases of dashboard-on-the-brain. Increasingly, industry watchers are championing the ability of dashboards and scorecards to close the loop on the still separate practices of BI and PM in many organizations.
“The vision absolutely needs to be [one of convergence and alignment]. If every machine in a power-plant has a measuring device, why should a business not have such controls? In fact many are required by law,” argues Rajeev Rawat, founder and CEO of consultancy BI Results LLC. In essence, Rawat argues, there’s no reason organizations shouldn’t be implementing such controls: while the ingredients for effective dashboardization might have been lacking in the past, the ascendance of new technologies—especially SOA—has helped clear a path for more ambitious takes on dashboarding, he concludes. “Adoption of SOA and IT infrastructure integration are the key to effective dashboarding.”
Director of TDWI Research Wayne Eckerson is no stranger to dashboards, scorecards, or their twin promise. In his book, Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business (Wiley, 2005), Eckerson argues that dashboards and scorecards are facilitating a convergence of sorts between still somewhat separate BI and PM practices.
“Like long-lost siblings, these two disciplines have struggled on their own to deliver real business value and gain a permanent foothold within organizations,” Eckerson wrote in a TDWI report published last summer, Deploying Dashboards and Scorecards. “But together they offer an unbeatable combination whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
On the other hand, Eckerson and other industry watchers stress, dashboards shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as tools for strategy alignment. In this respect, he counsels, dashboards serve more of a monitoring function, while scorecards provide the alignment tip. “Dashboards are usually driven by a manger or executive who wants an easier way to monitor key areas of responsibility. Dashboards are for monitoring processes and scorecards for strategic objectives,” Eckerson comments, stressing that—when used in tandem—“the key benefit is aligning people, processes, and plans with strategy.”
BI tools guru Cindi Howson, a principal with BIScorecard.com, agrees. “Scorecards give alignment, not dashboards,” Howson comments, stressing that—because vendors, analysts, and journalists tend to use the terms interchangeably—users are confused about the respective roles of each technology.
Cognos’ MacMillan concurs. “They obviously have different uses. They’re used by different audiences.”
The key point, she concludes, is that both dashboards and scorecards are easier than ever to build, deploy, and expose to users.
“You need both [dashboards and scorecards]. You need to have that monitoring [capability], which you get from dashboards, but you also need a way to monitor how you’re executing on your strategy, which is where scorecards come in,” she says. “With Celequest [i.e., Cognos Now!] and Cognos 8 BI, [we] make it pretty easy for [customers] to quickly and easily deploy them both.”
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.