It is time to stop thinking of dashboards as a “nice to have” and instead view the technology as a way to provide everyone in the company with a common version of the truth. Long-gone are the clunky spreadsheets and simple, static graphs; data visualization has evolved into a dynamic discipline that is opening up new doors for the exploration and analysis of complex data sets for a wide range of businesses. 

Knowledge is Power

Collection of information is required for every industry. For example, the number of patients seeing a doctor each day or how quickly a waste management company’s employees are picking up refuse are measures that can be tracked to determine how a business is running. Without this intelligence, it is impossible to know what is working, where weaknesses exist and what processes may need to change to ensure the health of the organization.

However, collecting the data is only half the job. If the information is siloed, it cannot be easily viewed or acted upon. If the material is trapped in static computer applications, like spreadsheets, it may only be made available to a limited number of employees. Many companies have found the key to easing this pain is dashboard technology. Designed to provide the visual intelligence needed to analyze, track and drill down through complex data sets, companies can leverage information assets through personalized, real-time business intelligence dashboards.

Due to the flexibility of the technology, BI dashboards can be deployed to enhance any data collection system. Dashboards come in all shapes and sizes, and they empower users across many vertical markets and organizations to work more efficiently and effectively toward a common set of goals. The first step to ensure success is to have an organization define key performance indicators that best illustrate progress toward its objectives.

Use of dashboards will vary depending on a company’s focus and business goals.  For instance, the most commonly understood use case of dashboard technology is internal monitoring of KPIs to help users make quick, well-informed business decisions. Alternatively, and more commonly seen today, dashboards are being leveraged in client-facing scenarios to help consolidate information and results, so that they can be displayed and analyzed at a glance.

By definition, both types of dashboards are visual displays of the most important information needed to assess progress and objectives. With data demands increasing exponentially and customers calling for greater visibility into their investments and results, it’s no wonder that companies are relying on dashboards to deliver more power to their business users and customers. Real-time data availability is becoming the BI reporting standard and is required to support critical business processes today. Knowledge is power, and understanding what is happening empowers stakeholders to identify what must be done to remain successful.

Using real case study examples, the following illustrates the different ways that dashboards are used to measure results and track progress toward objectives.

Dashboards for Data-Driven Decisions

The value of data is directly proportionate to how fast businesses can react to it. More than ever, largely due to the current turbulent financial climate, organizations of all sizes need to be on their toes and responsive to the potentially game-changing information they have access to. With the trepidation resulting from the current economic uncertainty looming over the heads of many organizations, it is critical that personnel have the capability to identify how their performance data can be leveraged. Deep understanding of the state of the business today will help to make better decisions for tomorrow.

With the help of dashboard technology, organizations such as Advanced Solutions International (ASI) can assist nonprofit organizations to stay on track using BI to monitor their staffs and campaigns. This insight allows organizations to run more nimble fundraising programs and better manage their donor communities. As a leading provider of nonprofit software solutions, ASI understands that in order to plan ahead, optimize resources and meet campaign goals, agencies must have full transparency of their data.

A major benefit of using dashboards is the visibility they provide into the peaks and valleys of an organization’s performance. Instead of taking the time to analyze and comprehend a screen of spreadsheets with rows of data, users can accurately gauge performance with a quick glance. Dashboards indicate the pulse of the organization, allowing users to graphically see these business patterns as they unfold, letting project managers to adjust campaign activities and budgets accordingly.

This insight is powerful for nonprofits, or any organization for that matter, interested in staying competitive or in business. For many, having the foresight into these business trends is critical in order to be proactive during the course of a project, rather than responsive to the performance data after project completion. With the economic downturn, the near real-time access to data is a constant and especially valuable reminder of how important it is to stay on track and manage progress toward goals.

The ability to quickly identify issues and initiate a response or new programs before things “go south” is the key to staying afloat. For example, dashboards can provide insight into the performance of annual campaign contributions and offer predictions on the performance based on the data trends that appear. With a real-time view to this level of detail, a nonprofit can spot a problem as it’s happening and have time to make adjustments, while it can still have an impact on the overall donation goal. The visual intelligence offered by dashboard technology enables the agility needed to make smart decisions quickly.

With this information, the program manager is able to make accurate and timely assessments of the progress and performance of the campaign, without the time needed to generate reports manually. Real-time information is available automatically from an online dashboard.

Show Me The Metrics

Today more than ever, dashboards are being used as a reporting tool to spotlight results in client-facing scenarios. Helping to consolidate information that can then be monitored and analyzed at a glance, these dashboards track vendor performance and output.

In the case of Tech Image, a public relations firm, its client-facing PR-activity dashboards are designed to display a campaign’s success, current status and progress toward goals. Each client selects the KPIs most important to their campaign objectives. For example, they may elect to monitor media coverage, quality of the story, overall tone of the article, content and budget to ensure the results are in line with the cost of the program.

Coupling the ability to quickly view and assess information, the benefits realized from these dashboards include opening up more time for strategic planning, removing the guesswork of assessing each activity’s impact and providing users with insight to determine if goals and objectives have been met or if they remain on track. With 24x7 access to data about the program, near-real time reporting, and the ability to spot trends over time and make adjustments, these dashboards let clients recognize the value of their campaigns.

In addition to providing the insight needed to tailor activities to ensure success, the dashboards empower users to map PR activities directly to lead generation. Quantifying the connection between increasing brand awareness and an uptick in sales has long been a contention between PR firms and their clients. Until now, it has been nearly impossible to prove. Using dashboards to track specific activities and their results enables users to see the correlation and the results the PR campaign provides.

Address Dashboard Challenges Before They Become Obstacles

Like with any software application, dashboards are only valuable when populated with the appropriate data. Therefore, it is critical that organizations identify the metrics or KPIs that best represent the health of their company. For example, a financial institution must track risk management and net income, whereas a manufacturer needs to monitor its supply chain and the production of goods.

The process for defining the KPIs that will bring the intended insight can be difficult and will certainly be time-consuming. However, if this step is not given the full attention needed, the dashboard will not offer optimal performance and cannot support users in smart decision-making.

Dashboards are powerful tools. Sometimes the results or the fear of what the data will show creates conflict. In one case, a health care provider found that deploying this technology to track patient satisfaction created an intense backlash from clinicians and an initial distrust of the process. Complete transparency of the initiative and why it is being implemented is an important part of the rollout process.

It is also important to note that because dashboards display critical KPIs in a very straightforward and clear manner, there is a chance that decision-makers may observe trends that put them in a difficult position. The ineffectiveness of a particular part of the organization can be made very obvious and indicate the need to dissolve a department or arrange for a function of the company to be better serviced by alternative means.

Dashboards Full Throttle

It is clear that dashboard technology is taking a larger role in the BI initiatives of organizations. With the amount of data gathered and stored it is imperative that tools designed for the express purpose of providing visual intelligence be seen as a valuable resource, not a toy or an option that may or may not be deployed. Tracking, monitoring and analyzing the information that makes up the backbone of a company is the only way to ensure a business’s ongoing health and prosperity. Visually rich applications that make this insight available in near real-time, drive quick, intelligent decision-making.

Shadan Malik, president and CEO of iDashboards, has worked with hundreds of businesses and global enterprises to address their specific needs and architect dashboard solutions for organizational scorecards, finance, operations, customer service, quality control and supply chain.

Dan Germain is senior executive of strategic business development with Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit software provider Advanced Solutions International.

This article first appeared on Information Management, a sister publication of Health Data Management.

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