Tools that turn data into "business intelligence" used to be the preserve of those with very deep pockets. But as FSN writer Lesley Meall discovers, dashboards and other graphical "visualisation" aids are now within the reach of small and medium sized businesses too.
Information is power. Data is just lots of bits and bytes swimming around in a sea of ones and zeros. So we would all be a lot happier if business systems could provide us with more of the former and less of the latter. Sadly, most of the time, this is not to be. The relatively brief history of business systems has been characterised by software applications that are good at collecting data, and less good at turning it into useful information – and the more systems you have collecting data the less easy it can be to get the information you need from them.
Enter the dashboard (feel free to imagine flashing lights and a fanfare of trumpets). As well as making it easier for you to extract the information highlights and business insights you want from the data where they are hiding, these software tools can make them easier to visualise, with the help of a range of interactive real-time graphs, charts, meters and speedometers. Dashboards have always been within the reach of those who could afford the big bucks required to buy and implement an all-singing all-dancing business intelligence application, but over the past couple of years, they have become more accessible and affordable.
"Dashboards have developed into their own niche market," reports Lindsay Wise, a business intelligence analyst and president of WiseAnalytics, "and this new and expanded approach is allowing lots more organisations to get a daily or intra-daily view of how they are performing." So when Colin Meakin, the Chief Executive of Concorde IT Group wants the financial highlights on the four companies in the group, his dashboard is where he looks.
"We are expanding rapidly, and I want to spend less time reviewing reports and spreadsheets and more time running our business", he says, and using a dashboard has made this possible.
As he explains,"It links seamlessly into all of our existing data systems," including the numerous spreadsheets that Meakin is keen to avoid and a number of accounting systems he once struggled to get financial information from. "Each of the four companies in the Concorde Group uses different financial packages, that only tell you what you need to know at the month-end," he says, but the dashboard can dip into all of these, and turn the data they contain into real-time information, improving the speed and accuracy of decision-making across the business. "We now have a consolidated view of everything we need to know about our business," he says.
The way that dashboards present information has also made Meakin’s life easier. "With lots of software applications you have to know where to look if you want to find anything," he says, "but the dashboard provides me with just the right amount of detail, in an easy to understand graphical format, and using it is as simple as using the dashboard in your car." In the same way as a car driver can glance down and see how fast they are travelling and how much fuel they have in the tank, the chief executive (and anybody else who uses the system) can glance at their dashboard and see the performance indicators they have selected to show how well the group is doing, and drill down into the detail if they need to.
Meakin’s weapon of choice is Intuitive Dashboards from Intuitive Business Intelligence. But "self-service" dashboard features are increasingly being built into and enhanced in all sorts of business systems. Some are offered as on-demand, web-based tools; some must be installed on your computers. Some provide general purpose dashboard tools, and leave it you to decide what to watch, and others do more to nudge you in the right direction.
Vendors of systems for accounting, human resources, and so on are also creating dashboard tools to sit on top of these and other applications (on which more, below). There are also tools such as Dashboard Builder, to specifically address the challenges of creating dashboards based on Microsoft Access databases and view them from anywhere across the web. Even the latest version of the most-used spreadsheet in the world (Microsoft Excel) has spruced up its visualisation capabilities, to make it easier for users to summarise, filter and share data – though doing this may require more product-specific know-how than some of the dashboard tools above.
If you want to use MS Excel to create dynamic dashboards, or exploit some of its newest graphical features, you will need to jump through a few more hoops than the non-spreadsheet-loving amongst you might be comfortable with. If you want to use its "slicer functionality" to "enhance your PivotTable and PivotChart visual analysis" (Microsoft’s words, not mine) or use its "sparklines" to "get a visual summary of your data using tiny charts that fit within a cell alongside your text data", then you are going to need to understand what all of this is describing, or spend some time learning, or turn to somebody who’s already done this.
So it’s easy to understand why non-finance people such as Meakin prefer something a little less challenging and a little more intuitive; less easy to understand why finance people are not as enthusiastic (according to some dashboard vendors). After all, in the same way as non-finance users can use dashboards to get a snapshot of key performance indicators (KPIs), dig down into the data behind trends, and use the resulting insights to improve decision-making, planning, and efficiency, so can those in finance, by using role-specific dashboards for finance directors, and all sorts of function or process-specific dashboards – and taking the lead on dashboards can give finance the opportunity to be seen adding value.
Doing this seems to have gone down well at the charity ShelterBox, where the finance team introduced dashboards along with a recently installed Access Dimensions accounting system. ‘Our senior management team are often out raising awareness about our work, and they are out in the field a lot, so it’s useful for them to have key data available in a user-friendly format,’ says Rob Evans, the ShelterBox accountant who led the team that selected and implemented the system. ‘Currently we have about 15 people using the dashboard – the trustees, senior management team, myself, and the head of corporate finance,’ he says, ‘and there is no doubt it is extremely useful’.
"We can cater to various managers’ needs for key facts and key data, and tailor each individual view to what the user needs or wants to see," reports Evans, whose personal dashboard layout focuses on transport and materials. "Those are the main costs," he says. 2As for KPIs, we’re very focused on the number of boxes in stock and our income levels, as we are always trying to finance as much stock as we possibly can." He also appreciates the ease with which he can tweak the graphics used to present information. "I like the fact that I can use my own colours," he says, and chose the type of chart that best suits the information it represents.
"Finance lends itself to bar charts and pie charts, and we predominantly use those as they’re easy to look at," says Evans, "but we also have some line charts for trends and a couple of speedometers for stock value and bank balance", and people can drill down from these to examine the underlying details, rather than always needing to wade through vast amounts of data. As a charity, its overriding aim is to finance the most shelter boxes it possibly can – and the dashboard has a direct impact on this too, as the accountant explains; "We use it to track disasters, which are plotted straight onto a map view, and this allows us immediately to see what and where we have deployed." Information is power.