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Shipping firm opts against SAP dashboards

Underwhelming functionality was among the factors that ruled out SAP for Old Dominion Freight Line’s operational dashboard project.

By all accounts, Old Dominion Freight Line’s recent operational dashboard deployment has been a success.

Workers in the field now have timely access to operational data via Web-based dashboards to make better, quicker decisions, according to Teresa Wilhelm, dashboard analyst at the Thomasville, N.C.-based shipping firm.

But the keys to success were non-technical factors, namely financial considerations and internal communication, Wilhelm said.

Consider licensing. Old Dominion is an SAP customer, using the vendor’s Business Warehouse to store and manage employee data. Naturally, the company decided to include SAP’s dashboarding technology as part of its evaluation.

While there were technical factors for not going with SAP – such as limitations around integrating data from non-SAP sources -- Old Dominion decided against SAP primarily because of its expensive licenses, according to Wilhelm.

Old Dominion planned to roll out dashboards not to a small group of executives but to more than 2,000 workers at locations spread across the nation. The company also wanted the flexibility to expand the deployment to even more users in the future, including senior executives, without taking a huge hit on licensing.

That ruled out SAP, according to Wilhelm. “Their licenses are quite expensive,” Wilhelm said, though she declined to give specific figures. “We needed something that gave us unlimited licensing.”

But Kenneth Erdner, Old Dominion’s vice president of information system and technology, disputes Wilhelm’s version of events. Erdner said at the time of the evaluation, “SAP’s dashboard product was limited.”

It lacked features and functionality that Old Dominion required, he said. SAP has since upgraded its dashboard product via its acquisition of Business Objects.

Whatever the reason, Old Dominion passed on SAP’s dashboard product. Enter Corda Software. The small, independent data visualization vendor based in Lindon, Utah, offered not just superior dashboarding software, according to Wilhelm, but an unlimited user license model that Old Dominion was looking for.

Gather diverse stakeholders for operational dashboard design success
With the vendor chosen, Wilhelm got down to the difficult job of architecting the deployment and designing the actual dashboards. It wasn’t a job she could do alone.

“You have to have a group with lots of different types of people,” she said.

So she helped put together a working group that included a variety of stakeholders, including Web designers with solid graphic design capabilities and developers with experience with Java, SQL and HTML.

But it was also important to include Old Dominion workers from the business side of the table, Wilhelm said. Workers with data domain expertise and others who had a firm grasp of the business logic that would underlie the dashboards were also included in the dashboarding group.

“Then you have to find a person who knows how to talk to business,” she said.

With the group in place, they got to work. Designers and developers listened to business workers, incorporating their suggestions and experimenting with different visuals. By the end of last year, the dashboards were ready for deployment.

Seek out user feedback and respond
Of course, even with a diverse group of workers from throughout the company designing the dashboards, there was no guarantee that users would be happy with the results.

Wilhelm wanted to know what users thought -- so she just asked them. And, as simple as it sounds, she listened to what they had to say.

She conducted an anonymous survey of dashboard users throughout the company, soliciting feedback on a number of topics. The survey asked workers which dashboards they used most, how often, and whether they provided all the data they wanted.

She also asked about performance issues -- whether the dashboards were taking too long to load or refresh, for instance -- and included an open-ended section where workers could make their own suggestions for improving the dashboards.

When the results came in, a significant number of respondents reported that they felt they had not received enough dashboard training. “So we scheduled more training,” Wilhelm said, both online and in-person sessions.

A number of survey respondents also requested new functionality to make the dashboards more useful. But the dashboards already had much of the functionality being requested. Users just didn’t know it was there, she said.

Wilhelm put together a frequently-asked-questions document for users to consult and recorded a number of videos showing them how to access the features they were looking for.

Wilhelm did her best to accommodate those suggestions for new features that the dashboards did indeed lack, adding new check boxes here and additional columns there.

As a result, she said, user adoption has steadily climbed, proving that the success or failure of business intelligence (BI) application deployments often depends as much on smart negotiating skills and a willingness to listen to end users as it does on the technology itself.

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