Dashboards, Weapons of Mass Instruction
Basic BI Reporting
In my previous articles I hinted at the breadth and value that BI reporting can deliver and how this can revolutionise your business.
Even businesses with existing BI can benefit from a BI overhaul if some time has passed since the initial implementation or there has been a significant change in the trading climate (e.g. a recession).
Joe's Garage has flourished, despite the tough climate, and is the most successful garage in his part of the city. Joe has used BI to aid his decision making and has reaped the rewards.
He has worked closely with a BI consultant and together they have developed a comprehensive suite of reports that Joe now considers as useful as any tool he uses to fix cars.
BI reports are designed to answer a specific question and work very well in providing quantifiable results e.g. last month's highest selling product. This leads to a whole suite of reports designed and built to give constant feedback to the management.
However, there are some more complex questions which are not easy to provide a cut and dried answer to, and often the answer can vary according to the prevailing priorities and circumstances.
What a Dashboard Is and Does
A dashboard is a collection of reports displayed together in one main report, where the only logic linking the resulting information is its relevance to the overall business strategy.
Although the data can all come from the same database, more often it is from a number of sources, or is at least from disparate streams of data within the same database.
Even where the reports interrogate only one database, data can be reported in very different ways, and the results returned in a variety of formats.
As numerous columns of data can be tedious to read and interpret, dashboards tend to be based on summarised information and display results as charts and graphs.
This high level view of the pertinent aspects of a business issue is an invaluable tool in the interpretation and communication of up-to-the-minute results, and an important aid to strong decision making.
Joe's nearest rival garage is struggling to make a profit, and Joe is confident that with his BI enhanced business savvy he could turn the failing garage around.
However, in order to do this, Joe would need to dedicate all his time to the new garage and so he must first promote one of his two current employees to Head Mechanic.
Previously Joe would have chosen John, who has been a fully fledged car mechanic for ten years, rather than the newly qualified Steve who was an apprentice until a few months ago, but who has been working at the garage since leaving school.
Joe knows there is a lot to consider when comparing the two employees and is not sure that the full picture can be captured in a BI report.
Dashboards come into their element when trying to evaluate disparate data to reached an informed decision.
The premise often begins as a simple question, such as - Which of our three regional offices is the most profitable?
A report showing the monthly sales figures would seem to be enough at a quick glance.
But what if Office A sold more than Office B and C, but has double the staff?
What if Office B is in company owned premises while A and C pay rent?
Those with any accountancy experience will recognise the above as components on a company balance sheet. And in this case, the dashboard would be designed to display each of these components, showing the results of each separate item of interest in such a way that the overall performance of each office is easy to compare.
Further consideration needs to be given to surrounding factors, such as the time period reported on. The question of which Office is the most profitable is now independent of seasonal trends or temporary fluctuations in each Office's market share.
After chatting with the BI consultant who carried out the earlier work, Joe is sure that he needs a Dashboard report to bring together the performance attributes he wants to consider for both employees.
Ideally Joe would have liked to consider attendance and time keeping, but this data is not recorded.
Instead, Joe measures performance on different types of mechanical work, measuring speed, accuracy and experience in five different areas.
The dashboard takes more work than the previous reports Joe has used as it effectively displays five reports in one set of results. Joe also requests the option to view the results over different time periods so he can understand a fuller picture.
Commonly, dashboards are required to display two existing reports together as one report because a manager has found that they are regularly viewing the two reports in tandem. This is a very good starting point for the introduction of dashboards to an organisation.
The same software that is used for report writing is perfect for creating a dashboard. The temptation to copy / paste report results into a spreadsheet to create dashboard should be avoided - this is not only time consuming to do on a regular basis, but also results can be amended to produce erroneous overall outcomes.
Other specialist software for dashboard creation does exist and can produce some nicely formatted results, but in general, it is nothing that BI reporting software cannot do.
Careful consideration should always be given to the amount of information to be displayed and how.
Reporting software usually offers about twenty different chart types, but the most effective dashboards limit to using only one or two types of chart. Using too many formats can compromise the ability to make clear and direct comparisons between results.
Above, some of the chart options available through Crystal Reports 2008.
Also, it is important to avoid the temptation to display a mix of charts which show real numbers and charts which show percentages in the same dashboard - this can be really confusing!
I would also recommend displaying the charts in different sizes, with the most important chart being the biggest and displayed centrally.
A lot of BI consultancies will dissuade clients from implementing dashboards. The main reason for this is the extra work required to create the interface to display the results of five or six reports as one user-friendly solution, on top of the work involved in building the basic reports themselves.
However, the value added in aiding more complex business decisions, or for illustrating a complete picture swiftly and effectively, make them more than worth the investment.
A dashboard is designed to answer one specific business question, and with this in mind, displaying 5-6 sets of results is often not ideal. These separate answers do provide guidance for decision making, but sometimes a single, quantifiable answer would be far more beneficial.
Summarising the results from each of the dashboard charts into one main chart can clarify decision making.
The beauty of this approach is that weighting can be applied to certain areas depending on their importance and / or some information can be deliberately ignored.
All this makes dashboards one of the most versatile tools available.
Joe is surprised to find that Steve and John are nearly equal over all, though each has their own strengths and weaknesses.
In particular, Joe notices that Steve is good at tyre changes and weak at servicing, whereas John is strong at services and weak at tyres.
This emerging specialisation gives Joe a new idea.
Joe purchases the failing garage. He is delighted to find they have a similar database to his own, though obviously it has never been used in the canny way he has discovered.
Joe then measures the performance of the three staff in the new garage alongside Steve and John's.
With this information Joe is able to match each employee to the work he is most proficient at. This increases the speed of work carried out, generates a good reputation and the staff are happier in their work.
With his workforce assigned to their own specialist roles, Joe has more free time to generate more sales and custom for both garages.
If Business Intelligence reporting is a powerful weapon (and it is!) dashboards are the tactical strike that no business should be without.