Dashboarding is not a tool!

Saying that "data is the new oil" is to state the obvious. We are seeing an ever increasing awareness on the importance of data among our clients. The difference with oil is that it will not be the ones with the most data who will win, but the ones that have the best refineries because they'll be creating the end product they need!

I'll elaborate on one of the "refineries" that is getting a lot of attention in this short blog: dashboarding. I'm getting ads on the latest tools to create stunning dashboards nearly every day. But that's a misconception that I'd like to remove: Dashboarding is not a tool!

Back to the roots

Have you ever wondered where the term dashboard comes from? A "dashboard" used to be a panel that was put at the front of a horse-drawn carriage to prevent the mud from running horses from splashing everywhere. Later on this evolved into the perfect place at the front and center to put dials and controls to be able to steer and control a car. But let's never forget its roots: it's to prevent us from being splattered by mud!

Lesson 1: If you want to prevent data splattering everywhere, put a dashboard in front of it!

The core idea

Data is only useful when it is driving actions. So you and many organizations need actionable insights from that data. In many cases, the amount of data is overwhelming, and different people need different data to perform their jobs. The core idea of dashboarding is to decide, as an individual or as a group, what the key data is that shows what needs attention, how we are evolving, and whether or not we are realizing our goals.

Lesson 2: Dashboarding is about choosing the most important indicators based on the goals you want to achieve, and putting them at the front and center

A dashboard is also a key tool in collaboration. It can show the shared view of the mission status of a team.

An example within this context is what we put forward with our "Betonstop" (Belgian clampdown on construction projects) Dashboard. If we want to achieve the ambitious goals of the "Betonstop", progress and targets need to be clear and visible. This needs to be assessed regularly with all the stakeholders involved.

The right dashboard for the right job

There are different types of dashboards that serve different needs. Deciding on which dashboard you need, will determine the type of data sources you require, the frequency with which it is necessary to look at your dashboard and so on.

An important aspect is determining whether you need a strategic, tactical or operational dashboard. The stakeholders that will use the dashboard, and the rate of change of the indicators will determine this. If you, for example, have real time indicators that need to be assessed very frequently (multiple times per day or maybe even ASAP), you have a Monitoring Dashboard. If you have a management committee that needs a day-to-day overview of targets, but gets together on a quarterly basis to set out actions, you have a strategic dashboard.

Lesson 3: First determine the dashboard type that you need since this will drive the required data and the appropriate governance!

If we, for example, look at City Dashboards, an example of a Monitoring Operational dashboard would be the following London Dashboard. You can get a quick overview of the running tube lines, the weather, the available bikes for hire and so on. It’s interesting, but it does not provide any information on London’s strategic goals.

The "Betonstop" dashboard we proposed is an example of a Tactical Dashboard: a Progress Dashboard. Looking at this dashboard every day does not make sense. It has longer term targets, and needs to be assessed regularly.

Insights from data

We are visual people. Our brain is designed to interpret visual information, and it can do so much quicker than when we try to assess data in a spreadsheet. The whole idea of using dashboards is to provide quick insights at a glance. So use visualization to your advantage, but don’t go overboard!

Lessons 4: Make your dashboard visually attractive: no clutter!

An example is our "Betonstop" Dashboard. It provides the 6 most important indicators at the top, a trend line showing progress toward the important 2040 deadline, and a map showing the results per region at a glance.

Dashboard evolution

Once you have built a dashboard, it's important to keep assessing it. The indicators you choose can evolve over time.

One important thing to take into account is to not confuse the number with the desired effect. Let’s say for example that one of your required outcomes is to have your business grow by serving more customers. The number of customers can be a good indicator to put on a dashboard and to regularly check on how it is evolving. The danger is, however, that the number will start to get confused with the desired effect. If you give an 80% discount, you may increase your customer number in the short run, but it will probably not be a good strategy in the long term!

Mark Twain said it well: "If the metrics you are looking at aren't useful in optimizing your strategy - stop looking at them."

A dashboard will never be an exact representation of reality, but it is can offer support to achieve your goals.

Lesson 5: All dashboards are wrong, but some are useful.

Conclusion

I hope I have convinced you of the fact that dashboarding is not a tool. None of the lessons above is about tooling. When designing and implementing your dashboard, a tool will, of course, be useful, but it's not the most important aspect.

The important thing to realize is that a dashboard is a visual way of showing what is important. It can help you focus. Just don't get confused by all the tools!

We use dashboards as one of the data products in our Analytics & Insight methodology. Contact us if you’re interested in learning more!

Thomas Michem