A Microsoft article discusses options for building a dashboard based on the Microsoft Outlook folder home pages feature.

Video showing how enterprise dashboards deliver the business intelligence executives and managers need to make better decisions

Digital dashboards may be laid out to track the flows inherent in the business processes that they monitor. Graphically, users may see the high-level processes and then drill down into low level data... more on digital dashboards

Digital Dashboards

Definition: In Management Information Systems, a dashboard is an easy to read container that provides a customised display of information consolidated from one or more computer systems and websites.



See also Executive Dashboard Software

For years, CEOs have aspired to have greater control over and insight into the businesses they run. Frustrated by inadequate or insufficiently prompt access to data about the company’s operations, they have been forced to rely on phone calls and meetings with underlings, together with actual figures appearing only appearing in periodic reports, to be able to assess the state of the business and make strategic decisions which will move it forward in the right way. The recent software innovation popularly known as the “Digital Dashboard,” however, promises to change all that.

The core idea of the dashboard is to present complicated information in a simple visual format, making it easier to understand. In the past, considerable research effort has been expended in certain specialised areas, studying how best to help users digest complex but important information quickly. Cockpits in aircraft or dashboards in motor vehicles are examples of information interfaces which have been intensively studied and improved upon. Lives literally hinge on their users being able to extract the information they need from these interfaces with a minimum of effort. For a long time, however, the need to simplify the assimilation of information in a corporate context had a much lower priority. This is understandable, of course, as charred bodies don’t usually have to be picked out of burning wreckage every time a manager fails to spot something, but, in the long run, the accumulation of information blind spots leads to poor decision-making which ultimately will have an impact on a company’s profitability and even viability. Lay-offs and lost livelihoods may lack the drama of a plane crash but they spread plenty of misery too.

Executive Information Systems in the 1980s first began to address the information-perception problem for corporate executives. General Electric built on this in the 90s when it began to develop visual interfaces (called “cockpits”) for its managers. This was the real beginning of the Digital Dashboard. At that time, there was no off-the-shelf product GE could use to get what it wanted so it was forced to carry out its own IT development in-house. It was a tremendous success and proved to be very influential. Now that the dashboard idea is out in the wild and almost mainstream, General Electric continues to be a prominent user of them today.

A typical dashboard will feature a number of bars, graphs, and pie charts to indicate the key metrics which are important to the dashboard’s user. Colour-coding with green to indicate smooth running and red to indicate problem areas is also common. A dashboard should allow the user to drill down through the information stack, following up areas of concern to learn more about what lies behind the surface metric. (Those that don’t do this and instead present only a superficial visual display are more properly called Digital Scorecards.)

Literally thousands of dashboards have been created for specialised niche areas. Designers continue to innovate in the types of visual display used to highlight the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which are important to decision-makers. Beyond the standard pie charts and graphs, we now also have heat maps, spark lines and bullet graphs. Edwart Tufte’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is considered a classic study of the problem of conveying complex information through imagery. Stephen Few’s book BizViz : The Power of Visual Business Intelligence explores similar themes from the perspective of modern Business Intelligence software.

You can read about some of the many different dashboards that have been developed (and see images of them) here.

Of course a dashboard is only as good as the information behind it. For it to be a valuable tool, the information must be both relevant to the decision-makers responsibilities and timely. Relevance can best be assured through a careful consultation process prior to the beginning of the development or installation of the Business Intelligence software. The decision-maker knows better than anyone else what metrics really matters for his or her work.

Timeliness is also key. If the information portrayed in them is out of date, a dashboard-fronted business intelligence system is little better than a monthly spreadsheet that would be emailed around the company. The ideal is to have “real-time” BI – data warehouses which are constantly and automatically updated as things happen. This is very difficult to achieve (and some say impossible) but, by embedding automatic state-change notifications into the business process itself through technologies such as RFID, some approximation to it can be achieved.

Dashboards have already come into fairly widespread use among top tier companies. Business Week reported last year that 40% of Fortune 500 companies were using them. Larry Ellision, chief exec at Oracle, swears by them. And they are popular at Ellison’s fiercest rival, Microsoft, too.

It is likely that we will see dashboards become increasingly common and that further innovations in the visual display of information will continue to be made. Who knows, in a few generations, people might consider spreadsheets to be quaint relics of the past, much as we now think of punch cards.