The Trouble With Dashboards - InformationWeek

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Grumpy IT Guy
Grumpy IT Guy

The Trouble With Dashboards

Gleaming executive dashboards are often based on no data whatsoever, and they tell us nothing useful.

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Dashboards are all the rage. And I hate you, airline magazines, for making BigCorp's executives believe that information nirvana comes from IT dinking around with Ruby on Rails, Django, or other presentation front ends. None of them understand (a) that metrics that look "bad" are the most useful ones, (b) that useful metrics don't have to be displayed on a chrome-brushed dashboard to be useful, and (c) that data acquisition and quality control require actual hard work.

First, a confession. We put together a dashboard for a line of business under pressure from our board of directors. It looked great. It was gleaming. Shiny. And it (shockingly) actually had good, validated data behind it. But it has led to execs, when they discuss other projects that aren't nearly ready for a dashboard, saying, "We need to dashboardize that!"

If you have worked with large data analytics at all, you know how Kafkaesque that sounds. The "dashboardizing," apart from being an affront to the English language, is also not the point. The dashboard is not an end. It is a means.

[You're doing it wrong. See How To Mess Up IT Budgeting In 2015.]

Part of the problem: We have new, big data but the same dumb bosses. CEOs want to simplify ruthlessly, yet they also want to sound credible, so they need numbers, which sound like math. Math sounds complicated, so it is impressive. CEOs live for impressive.

But CEOs are also all about storytelling. They want a simple story that can be picked up by Jane Public. And they want a good story, not an ugly story.

So the problem is twofold. Execs want the dashboards to look pretty, and they also want the data to tell a pretty story.

But the metrics worth following are often ugly. The most useful areas, the areas for most improvement, are generally the areas that don't look good. These metrics are not wearing a $5,000 suit and $500 silk tie. They are not Armani. But those metrics are where the action is.

(Image: Geralt/Pixabay)

All we need to know is that a business unit is spending 6x more on cost of goods sold than every other business unit. We don't need to commission a graphic artist to show a chrome, art-deco pressure gauge that tells us that. The truth is in the numbers, which look like math, and math is hard. So, pretty, instead of math, rules the day.

The truth is that you don't need "pretty" to build an effective dashboard. An effective dashboard can be built with a 15-minute data export into Excel or Tableau, instead of plowing 120 hours of programming and design work into a dashboard that will be popular among executives for, oh, four months, at a guess.

The truth is that dashboards are the wrong celebration. They are usually used to "prove" that we are making forward progress. Look! Everything is green!

That is, everything that we have chosen to reveal to executives. Everything else is a swamp pit of doom and despair, but we choose not to reveal that, because in our Armani world of pretty dashboards, we must present the perfect picture.

The hatred of the ugly picture discourages analytical thinking. And that is oh so wrong.

Dashboards may be pretty, but ugly pictures allow us to take action to improve. And that would be oh so right.

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Grumpy IT Guy avoided historic disasters and clueless people while working his way up the IT ranks, but he retained his keen sense of humor. He now leads an IT organization somewhere in America, as part of the FBI's Grump Protection Program. Need advice? Send questions to ... View Full Bio
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D. Henschen
D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
1/20/2015 | 1:50:49 PM
Executive Dashboards vs. Operational Dashboards
If top execs demand candy coating and strategy affirmation, they'll get it, I guess, but if they're good leaders who want to tackle problems and improve performance, they can get that too. As for the great big middle, the LOB execs and other poor SOBs that have to deliver on CEO promises, they have no choice but to deal with meaningful, best-possible numbers that tell them what's working and what needs improvement. It's hard to generalize about the quality of dashboards in every org. Just as with data, garbage dashboards in, garbage results out.
User Rank: Ninja
1/19/2015 | 1:05:40 PM
Re: Not Always a Waste
Grumpy Guy works in a big company world I have no career experience in. If mgmt truly requesting only good data metrics and not the bad ones, that is a sad state of affairs.

To me, Dashboard technology is about efficiency and integration. Which method is better, importing line of business data into Excel and creating Charts or having a tool which can directly act on the LoB data and draw the Charts on a web page?

I'd argue the tool to create Dashboards in web browser is better approach, assuming it is integrated and doesn't cost anything significant. But that tool requires a IT developer to create the Charts, versus feeding the data to Excel (ODBC or something) and telling user to do it themselves. So it is a choice without a clear right/wrong way to go.

I have created a Dashboard for shopfloor (with this technology) to make the Corp Lean guys happy that I feel the data is of minimal value. But the purpose was to get them off our backs demanding we implement Whiteboards in 30+ machine groups in three plants that are updated with worthless metrics MANUALLY by Supervisors. To that end, it was a successful project, even if the data did little to help us make better products.
User Rank: Ninja
1/19/2015 | 11:34:54 AM
Re: Not Always a Waste
I'm guilty of creating useless dashboards to simply 'wow' upper management.  Nothing tickles execs like multi colored pie charts and graphs.  I estimate that probably 30% of the analysis that my dashboards provided was probably of any genuine use.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/19/2015 | 10:01:22 AM
Re: Need to move beyond
I agree with Peter. Companies, I have noticed get so caught up with Dashboard and what it means to "them" in the present that they forget about the core mission of the organization looking forward.
User Rank: Ninja
1/18/2015 | 11:55:12 AM
Not Always a Waste
I usually agree with your rants, and this one has much to recommend it. But, it isn't the case that

>> The truth is that dashboards are the wrong celebration. They are usually used to "prove" that we are making forward progress. Look! Everything is green!

I've built and used dashboards that are really accurate indicators, what's wrong where, what's right, and how do they balance
User Rank: Ninja
1/17/2015 | 11:42:17 AM
Need to move beyond
The biggest problem with becoming enamored with dashboards is that the dashboard only provides a view. It does not give you the models that produce actionable results. Organizations need to focus on finding ways to leverage data to solve operational issues, enhance customer relationships and build new products. This means getting deep into the data to find nuggets of knowledge...not looking at pretty pictures. 


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