Don't Fall for Just any Old Dashboard

If you're a cynic like me, you probably find it hard to get excited over the concept of a canned dashboard. Despite the hype, dashboards, as management tools, tend to be fairly one dimensional devices, although many make it easy to scan over high-level business and financial metrics and activity. But they often only skim the surface -- or fail to allow users to fully drill down -- on the rest. And all too often, they're static, showing the same business snapshots quarter over quarter, year over year.

Recently E-Sourcing Forum's David Bush tackled the concept of dashboards in a post that linked to and referenced an article from Business Finance. As you can expect, both David and Business Finance, a publication that caters to controllers and CFO types came out strongly in favor of dashboards.

But as I look at it, dashboards are only one piece in a broader alignment puzzle, tying together an entire business and its associated cost centers (and yes, I view finance -- much more so than procurement -- as a cost center). In my view, the problem is that many companies approach dashboards as they would standard reporting, albeit with some cooler pictorial and graphical concepts tossed in to convey quantitative and qualitative information in more visually dynamic ways.

To wit, here's the standard dashboard recipe I see all too often: mix together a canned set of views, tables and fields. Add to that slurry a dollop of eye candy (e.g., thermometers, speedometers, sliding scales, etc.). And don't forget some type of batch or real-time data integration and just enough interactivity to drill down into the underlying data source (or sometime of Excel-derived extract). Voila! You have a fully functioning dashboard.

But in Borat's immortal words, I'd probably add "not!" to that last statement. Yes, you might have a dashboard at this point. And you've probably defined its measures and metrics along some set of management criteria that a consulting or benchmarking firm has suggested. But in my view, this approach falls short in part because it is static from a field perspective. Why does this matter? Since the world is constantly changing, why shouldn't your cockpit to monitor it evolve at the same pace?

In addition, many dashboard deployment deployments are resource intensive to create, implement and modify. And too many organizations treat dashboards as if they were an extension of their BI or ERP environment. As an analogy here, pouring concrete comes to mind for both sets of activities. But unfortunately, in this case, the foundation is constantly moving (hence the need for a more flexible approach).

How can companies overcome the drive to create monolithic dashboards that can stand the test of management's time (especially in the Spend Management area)? I'd argue first they should do away with the thought that a dashboard is anything but a portal to information that can be further excavated and examined. And more important, they should look at dashboards not just as digital management nannies, but as dynamic, flexible artifices that can -- and should -- change as the business changes.

In this way, the best dashboards should be disposable. Their building blocks must be fluid in order to allow them to be constructed, used, knocked down and then recreated as needed. And like an ad hoc database query or a custom report in an analytical application, management should use them not just to govern and enforce, but to analyze and strategize -- and above all to discover and drill around. After all, if an executive does not already have his finger on the pulse of the business, then a dashboard will just serve as a band aid -- not a flexible visualization tool that can drive real competitive advantage through new and changing insights.

I should give credit for this post where credit is due. JVKellyGroup's Ryder Daniels and Jim Kelly have really helped inspire and shape my views in terms of how dashboards can be most effective. Although they -- as do I -- scoff at the term "dashboard", JVKellyGroup are absolute pros at creating flexible reporting and visualization tools for procurement -- whatever you want to call them. If you've not seen their efforts, ring them up and ask to see some of their handiwork. You won't be sorry. In fact, I bet you'll be inspired (especially considering how dreadful most enterprise software visualization tools still are).

Jason Busch

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