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.
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)
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
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
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.