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Performance dashboards aren't just for executives

New customization features are making dashboard technology more common in cubicles -- not just corner offices.

Frost Bank IT executive Louis Barton is the driving force behind a new effort to bring executive dashboards out of corner offices and into cubicles.

Barton, executive vice president in charge of data warehousing and business intelligence at Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc., a $575 million bank holding company based in San Antonio, is one of more than 300 employees at his company using performance dashboards from Cognos Inc.

The company beta tested Cognos' latest product, Cognos 8, and hopes to implement it across even more of the company next spring, Barton said. "I'd say within 12 to 24 months we hope for 1,000 [employees using dashboards]," he said. "We hope to literally get this out to one-third of the company."

Barton's efforts are not unique. Improving technology means companies are using digital dashboards to give their employees more and more quick snapshots of business metrics and streamlined decision-making processes. Performance dashboards add value by, "reducing the cycle time it takes to analyze information and reducing the cycle time it takes to make a decision," Barton said. "There's value in knowing if the trend is going up or down one, two or three days sooner, because you can make a decision sooner. That means people are more productive."

Hurwitz & Associates, a research and consulting firm based in Waltham, Mass., recently surveyed 113 IT executives from U.S. companies with more than $100 million in revenue, to assess their demand for and requirements of dashboards. Of those, 60% had implemented dashboards in their companies while 40% planned a dashboard implementation in the next 18 months.

"Think about a dashboard as a collection of useful information for the decision maker," said Marcia Kaufman, a partner at Hurwitz. "You could put together last week's reports, manually summarize the information and have it in one place, but it took you so long, you needed it three days ago."

Barton said the bank's brokerage department alone spent "$100,000 per year in paper and people to produce a static report" before implementing Cognos. The same report is now available over the Internet, updated in real time.

Performance dashboards offer information on demand

"Dashboards are not a new concept. It's just that the technology has improved so that you're able to provide the information faster and across multiple data sources," Kaufman said. "The advantage, and why this is becoming much more prevalent, is that you're now able to collect the data on a more on-demand basis."

Survey respondents said on average the data they need to make a decision comes from six to 10 different sources. Using a dashboard to collect information from those sources into a single, real-time source led to significant improvements in decision making, according to 56% of respondents.

Dashboard vendors include Business Objects SA, Cognos, Hyperion, MicroStrategy Inc., SAS Institute Inc. and Bowstreet Inc. Larger companies like Microsoft, SAP AG and Oracle Corp. also bundle dashboard offerings in with other products. "A majority of vendors that we see have some sort of dashboard in use as the way to present their information," Kaufman said.

The Hurwitz survey found the reduction of manual and administrative work was the leading benefit of performance dashboard implementation, with 67% of respondents calling that a highly significant benefit. Other benefits include increased operational efficiency, and a faster response to changes in key performance indicators.

The survey report also pointed out that operating off multiple spreadsheets or similar data sources can lead to the use of inconsistent or incorrect information. "We can manage the business from a more focused set of screens and one system, instead of jumping from one system to another [like SQL, Microsoft Access or spreadsheets]," Barton said.

Nearly 40% of survey respondents spent between $100,000 and $250,000 on their performance dashboards. More than 50% of respondents said their companies saved $500,000 to $1 million as a result of their dashboard implementation, through improved decision making, productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and a faster time to market for products. About 50% achieved a positive ROI in less than one year.

One surprising result of the survey, Kaufman said, was the importance respondents placed on being able to customize dashboards based on their specific roles. "In other words, the dashboards will look different and have different information depending on the person, like a sales executive versus the CEO," Kaufman said.

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