Dashboards are nothing new. We encounter them almost every day in one form or another. In our physical world, we see them on the cars we drive. On our phones, tablets, and computers we see them and rarely even recognize them. In one sense, we even carry primitive dashboards on our wrists in the form of watches.
At its most basic, a dashboard is any display that shows the current status of anything. Our car’s dashboard tells us how fast we’re going, how far we’ve gone, and if anything is currently broken. Our electronic device dashboards show us connection status, notification flags, and current battery charges. Our watches, and almost every other device, shows us the current time in the context of our locale and culture.
A business intelligence (BI) dashboard has the same purpose as any of those other dashboards: to provide up to the minute operational information at a glance.
Yes. And probably more than one. The information displayed on a dashboard helps you monitor your organization’s current status to make informed decisions that affect the future of your business.
Let’s take a step back to examine the components that make a BI dashboard.
Like every other organization, your organization has data. Data are simply recorded facts. You probably have it stored in a database somewhere. The data is of limited use while it simply resides, so we write reports. Reports are a collated display of our data. They are historic information. While reports are certainly an essential tool, they are frequently long and complex.
Imagine if your car speedometer displayed the raw data it is actually recording: the frequency of wheel rotation. That data is useful to us only when used in an extrapolative calculation that gives us context. The calculation for a speedometer is along the lines of “If the wheels continue to rotate at this rate over the course of one hour, then the vehicle will have travelled 60 miles.”
Business intelligence does the same for key pieces of operational data: “If stores continue to sell the number of units per day that they are currently selling, then in the next seven days we will have sold 350 units.”
These calculations are called “Key Performance Indicators (KPI).” They put data into the context of a goal to determine whether the goal will be reached. KPIs are one component of a useful dashboard.
Your organization probably has a few operational units or departments. It has also been in operation for some length of time. In a simple example, these two pieces of data can provide context for any other data we have collected. In the BI world we call them “Dimensions.”
Dimensions are hierarchical categories that can be used to filter and aggregate our data. Continuing the previous KPI example of units sold in a store, we can use dimensions to show the number of units sold in a specific month or by a specific department. Dimensions are used on dashboards to change the context of the displayed data.
“Measure” is the BI term for the actual data that is being filtered, aggregated, and displayed. Most organizations have many measures to display. Units sold is a measure. Value of those units is another. Costs, units produced, number of employees, rate of turnover, etc. are all measures. Any data value that can be aggregated can serve as a measure.
A dashboard places measures, KPIs, and report summaries on a single, interactive screen with dimension selectors to alter the view. The measures can be displayed as tabular data or in graphical format. KPIs are frequently displayed as simple graphics such as a traffic light or a needle gauge.
As a whole, you can tell exactly how your organization is running by a quick glance at a dashboard. A dashboard enables you to make informed business decisions without reading lengthy reports.
But dashboards aren’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Even within a single organization there is typically a need for several dashboards. The HR department doesn’t need to see how many units are coming off the manufacturing floor any more than the manufacturing floor manager needs to know how many employees are using the new self-service payroll. When asking, “What should my dashboard contain?” there is no single answer; there is a process.
Software solutions like Microsoft Dynamics GP, Sage 300 ERP, and many other packages offer BI templates and tools within the programs or as free add-ons. These prebuilt dashboards offer an ideal starting point. After using them for a short time, you will know what you’d like to see, what you never need to see, and what isn’t useful to you, but might be useful to someone else in your organization.
After making, or having a BI consultant make, those changes to your dashboard you will have a more useful tool tailored to your specific needs. Over time, you will iterate through this process, tuning and streamlining your dashboard each time. A dashboard will only get better as it evolves, so the time to get started is NOW.
If your organization doesn’t have a BI dashboard, or has one that needs tuning, contact us here, or at 410.685.5512, to see how we can help.
You might also be interested in our whitepaper, “Making Sense of Business Intelligence: How to Get Started with the Right Business Intelligence for You.” Download it here.
Generic dashboards (WikiCommons)