The problem with 'quickie' performance dashboards

Performance dashboards can prove tremendously useful, but they aren't a quick fix warns columnist Wayne Eckerson.

Any business person will tell you that that "there is no such thing as a free lunch." He might add that anything

you get for "free" has plenty of hidden costs. Yet, these very same business people jettison this hard-won wisdom when it comes to adopting performance dashboards.

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Making sense of metrics

Performance dashboards promise to revolutionize the way users interact with information and derive insights from data. Dashboards display performance metrics using graphs, icons and charts so business users can quickly assess the status of key processes and drill down into more detailed information if something is awry. The bottom layers of a true dashboard let users perform a root cause analysis of a problem and open reports that help identify specific actions to take.

Dashboards resonate with users because they conform to the way people work and don't force them to conform to the way a tool works. For users who have wrestled unsuccessfully with classic business intelligence (BI) tools (i.e., ad hoc query, reporting and online analytical processing tools) or Microsoft Excel or Access to get information, performance dashboards are liberating. Now, every business executive and manager wants a dashboard -- and fast!

Unfortunately, you can't rush a good dashboard. And you can't get it cheaply. Unless, of course, all you want to do is put some pretty makeup on that tired old Excel spreadsheet that your business analyst puts together each week. In that case, there are plenty of business dashboard vendors eager to sell you a "dashboard in a box," replete with fancy graphics and screens that look great and sound even better.

Performance dashboards offer more than glitz

A dashboard is much more than glitz -- in fact, a dashboard is all about the data. And getting the data right is challenging, especially when data is spread across many systems and applications that capture, store, format and define data in different ways. Even automating that old Excel spreadsheet can be more complicated than you think if it applies complex rules to data stored in multiple systems.

In addition, a perofrmance dashboard is more than a visual display of performance status or trends; it is a decision-making tool. That means, business managers (or their analysts) should be able to drill down and examine detailed data across many business dimensions (e.g., product, channel, geography, sales, profits, etc.) and open related operational reports with a few simple clicks of the mouse. And these views and reports should incorporate standard terms and rules defined by an organization's governance boards.

Curse of success

Even from this high-level description, you can see that a true performance dashboard is a complex application. But industry hype makes it sound like dashboards are as easy to deploy as Microsoft Office. One IT manager at a large manufacturing and distribution company garnered significant attention internally when his team created an effective (but decidedly low-tech) dashboard for an executive vice president to monitor customer service operations. Soon, other business managers approached the IT manager to convert their Excel and Access databases into dashboards.

"They were decidedly uninterested when we told them how much it would cost," the IT manager says. "They don't understand the costs involved in cleaning, integrating and modeling the data and building a bulletproof system that delivers sufficient right-time and detailed data so that they can make accurate and timely decisions." The IT manager said it cost $400,000 to build the executive vice president's dashboard, and it's been running for four years without any dedicated IT support.

Despite industry hype, it takes considerable IT maturity and investment to deliver dashboards that provide lasting value. A dashboard is really an extension of a business intelligence and data integration environment. Companies that have already deployed robust BI and data warehousing solutions are best positioned to deliver effective dashboards and scorecards. This is why my six-stage BI Maturity Model places dashboards in stage four and scorecards in stage five. (See http://tdwi.org/publications to obtain a poster of the BI Maturity Model.)

Shortcuts?

There are shortcuts to dashboard nirvana. New federated query technologies, known as enterprise information integration (EII), promise to grab data where it is, merge it and push it into a dashboard for display. But beware, EII technology is no panacea. Even the most sophisticated EII tools can't overcome dirty, inconsistent data, and network bandwidth and query complexity make them prone to performance problems.

The bottom line is that your organization is going to have to pay to correct the data sins of the past. If your organization has allowed its data and definitions to fragment, no dashboard can fix this and deliver an integrated view of timely, detailed information in a couple of weeks for a few thousand dollars. Dashboards can deliver tremendous value to the business, but don't be fooled into thinking they are a quick fix.

Wayne W. Eckerson is director of research and services for The Data Warehousing Institute in Seattle and author of Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business, (John Wiley & Sons) 2005. He can be reached at weckerson@tdwi.org.

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