Performance dashboards

Making BI part of the company culture

Business Intelligence (BI) is a very popular idea, but it has its problems in practice.

Forrester has pointed out that BI initiatives frequently only reach five per cent of the potential userbase, and many implementations aimed at delivering decision support to everyone end up being used by a few power users for a limited number of high value applications.

There are many reasons for this (for a start, providing decision support for everyone can affect the authority and power of middle managers and expose dysfunctional decision-making processes), but one is probably the tendency of BI projects to deliver more information than people need or can cope with, or even the wrong information.

This latter obstacle can be addressed by the BI dashboard, which delivers a few key metrics only, selected from a much larger number of potential metrics, customised to the needs of a particular user. Well, it will be addressed if you design the dashboard properly. This is where Wayne Eckerson’s book on Performance Dashboards comes in.

Eckerson is director of Research and Services for the TDWI (The Data Warehousing Institute); I heard him speak at the Information Builders Summit last month and he seems to know his stuff.

The theme of his book is that organisations need focus - all employees, management, and workers must focus on "a clear and unambiguous set of goals laid out in a corporate strategy" - and that a performance dashboard is the organisational magnifying glass that provides this focus.

Of course, putting this idea into practice isn't easy and you may have met flashy management dashboards that present incorrect or misleading information (typically, what is easy to measure rather than what is really needed by decision makers); present too little information and give decision makers an incomplete picture; or require too many manual processes for busy people to find them usable. We have many tools (spreadsheets, typically) that make it easy to present a plausible illusion of management information, while hiding any lack of real substance.

Performance Dashboards makes a valiant attempt to cut through the hype and help you to do something practical to assist with measuring, monitoring and managing your business. Part I covers the basics, including assessing your readiness for effectively delivering the BI magnifying glass. If you don't have a defined corporate strategy, if metrics merely provide ammunition for a blame culture, if senior management doesn't accept the idea of saying what it is trying to do, doing it, and then measuring the gap between aspiration and reality and reducing it, an attempt to introduce performance dashboards to the management process will probably fail. A certain degree of organisational (and technical) maturity is a prerequisite.

Part II looks at different kinds of dashboards (operational, tactical, and strategic) and their practical implementation. Tactical dashboards, for instance, can meet the needs of the casual user instead of the analysts and power users traditional BI often serves - BI for the masses. Eckerson explains the importance of "balanced scorecards", which report on the soft performance measures such as customer satisfaction and employee morale as well as hard metrics such as sales and profits.

Part III is devoted to "critical success factors" for performance dashboards, with hints and tips from the trenches. It includes an important chapter on aligning IT with the business - which, realistically, points out that implementing performance dashboards increases the tension between IT and the business, because it forces the two groups to work closely together. Eckerson recognises that there are faults on both sides: "In many organisations executives threaten to outsource or offshore IT when it does not deliver sufficient value, rejecting the possibility that their own actions and decisions may have crippled IT's ability to function effectively".

The book is peppered with practical spotlights on particular insights and issues. For instance, Eckerson surveys the "religious" approaches to the data warehousing that will underlie your dashboards (Inmon's "hub and spoke" model, Kimball’s "star schema" data mart approach, Teradata's centralised warehouse and the federated approach to a "virtual warehouse" are covered) and reports TDWI research as to which is most popular (Inmon). He also points out that most organisations adopt a hybrid approach in practice, taking something from each, as appropriate to their requirements.

Eckerson has produced a book which balances the various points of view of the business and the IT technicians who serve the business. I can't actually find much to criticise in it. However, if you disagree with me, Eckerson (at the end of his foreword) does say, "this book is not my final word on the subject; there is always more to learn!" - and he solicits feedback for the next edition. A very healthy attitude.®

Performance DashboardsPerformance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business

Verdict: This is an excellent "vade mecum" for IT practitioners who want to deliver effective decision support systems to the businesses that actually pay their salaries.

Author: Eckerson, Wayne W.

Publisher: Wiley

ISBN: 0471724173

Media: Book

List Price: £27.99

Reg price: £22.39

Sponsored: Driving business with continuous operational intelligence