November 13, 2007

The key problem with dashboard functionality

I keep hinting – or saying outright :) — that I think dashboards need to be revolutionized. It’s probably time to spell that point out a little further.

The key issue, in my opinion, it that dashboards need to be much more personalizable than they are now. This isn’t just me talking. I’ve raised the subject with a lot of users recently, and am getting close to 100% agreement with my viewpoint.

One part of the problem is personalizing what to see, how to visualize it, and how all that’s arranged on the screen. No one product yet fully combines best-of-breed ideas from mainstream BI, specialized visualization tools, and flexible personalized web portals. But that’s not my biggest concern, as I think the BI industry is on a pretty good path in those respects.

Rather, the real issue is that dashboards don’t adequately reflect personal opinions as to what is important. Indeed, that lack is often portrayed as virtue, because supposedly top management can dictate through a few simple metrics what a whole company of subordinates will think and think about. (Balanced scorecard theology is a particularly silly form of this.) But actually that lack is a serious impediment to dashboard success, or indeed to a general analytic/numerate enterprise culture overall.

“One version of the truth” can be a gross oversimplification. We can laugh about how a company can have 5 or 10 or 13 different ways to define “revenue” or “profit.” But when that happens, it’s generally because multiple different ways of counting each have validity! For one thing, accounting for costs and reserves is an inexact science. Measuring overall value creation is less precise yet. For example, what’s the lifetime value of acquiring a customer? That’s almost impossible to know, yet estimating it is crucially important to almost any quantified sales or marketing decision.

Consequently, it is very reasonable to analyze based on alternate definitions side by side, each perhaps being proposed by its own champion. In particular, a middle manager should be allowed to keep multiple different versions of the same table, graph, or chart side by side, namely the one her boss thinks is right, the one she thinks is right, and the ones her subordinates favor. When all versions give essentially the same conclusions, all is good. When they differ – well, that’s a prime opportunity to sharpen the analysis and perhaps learn something new about the business.

In an important subcase of this, queries and visualizations need to be more flexibly specified (and specialized) than they are today. Here’s an example of what I mean. If there are general sales pipeline reports and graphs, district managers can easily be shown just the version for their district. But the need goes well beyond that. A sales manager can, himself, do a good job of creating a category of “important accounts to focus on” or “typical accounts (with special cases stripped out)” or “accounts that are likely to give major expansion opportunities down the road if only we get in the door.” But he has to be able to do it himself; it often can’t be handed down from above.

Since this is getting long, I’ll describe what I think needs to happen under the covers in a separate post.

Comments

5 Responses to “The key problem with dashboard functionality”

  1. Daniel Lemire on November 14th, 2007 10:26 am

    What you describe there is closely related to what we called “Web 2.0 OLAP” in the following paper:

    Collaborative OLAP with Tag Clouds: Web 2.0 OLAP Formalism and Experimental Evaluation

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0710.2156

  2. Curt Monash on November 14th, 2007 4:41 pm

    Daniel,

    I’m not sure I see the similarity. Could you please explain a bit?

    Thanks!

    CAM

  3. Marc Mauri on November 29th, 2007 5:42 am

    Hi Curt,

    I do not agree with your vision, please let me explain a couple of reasons:
    Target audience for BI tools, are specialists in “playing” with data, don’t try to explain a sales rep, or a top manager, what is a dimension and what is a fact, they don’t need to know.

    However target audience for dashboards is completely different, at least in our dashboards we focus on top management, and the whole sales force.

    At a sales rep level, a dashboard must be, what you call “One version of the truth”, because I believe sales rep work is to focus at sales, and use tools that help him, not to play with cube dimensions.

    On the other hand, I agree that current visualization needs a boost, to help final user understand underlying data.

    Following with the district managers and sales reps example you cited previously, they manage a lot of data that is intrinsically geographical, but how many ‘interactive maps’ (not just plain statical gifs) have you seen in dashboards?

    That’s what we are trying to focus, making a ‘different’ dashboard tool.

    Please drop me a note, if you want to take a look, I will appreciate very much your comments.

    Thanks.

  4. Curt Monash on November 29th, 2007 6:38 pm

    Marc,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I agree that salespeople in many organizations are coin-operated, and that when they start thinking too much more bad happens than good. Perhaps not coincidentally, current dashboard technology has had much of its success in sales (and marketing) organizations. Even the companies that SELL dashboard technology typically don’t use it effectively except in sales and marketing, or if they do then only very recently.

    My published email address is contact at monash dot com. If you want to drop me a line, please use a subject heading that is OBVIOUSLY not spam, as I traditionally get over 100 spam emails per day to wade through.

    Best,

    CAM

  5. The future of dashboards, if any | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on November 13th, 2012 10:11 pm

    [...] intelligence dashboards are frequently bashed. I slammed them back in 2006 and 2007. Mark Smith dropped the hammer last August. EIS, the most dashboard-like pre-1990s analytic [...]

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