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TDWI conference takes fresh look at BI dashboards, scorecards

From the TDWI World Conference Series, business intelligence expert Cindi Howson talks about BI dashboards and scorecards -- from basic definitions to newer innovations.

Buzzwords like cloud computing and real-time analytics received a fair amount of attention at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) conference in Las Vegas last week, but so did the more traditional business intelligence (BI) strategies.    

Cindi Howson, analyst and founder of the Sparta, N.J.-based BIScorecard dedicated to evaluating vendors and their BI products, spent an afternoon at the TDWI event teaching attendees about a BI staple -- the dashboard.

“Historically, to get good dashboard capabilities, companies had to customize their own solutions, just code it,” she said. “That has changed dramatically even in just the last two years where you can get good capabilities either from the BI platform vendors or smaller vendors like QlikTech, Tableau, Domo, Dundas and iDashboards.” sat down with Howson to talk about the difference between BI dashboards and scorecards and where the software is headed as BI becomes more common for companies -- and more complicated.

What is the difference between BI dashboards and scorecards?

Cindi Howson: A dashboard is an application that lets you view different visual indicators to monitor the state of the business at a glance -- like a dashboard in a car. It can have a chart with sales; it can have a cross-tab with head count; it can have a trend line of on-time shipments.

There are two types of scorecards: One is a general way of tracking key performance indicators [KPIs]. But more often we think of a scorecard as something certified by the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative. That means you’re viewing things by the four categories that Norton-Kaplan, the authors and strategic consultants, put out: customer, financial, internal processes and learning and growth. A strategic scorecard will have key performance indicators but also assign accountability and show relationships. For example, if you have a goal for financials to grow sales, then how does employee training, recruitment or customer service relate to that?

How do metrics fit into this discussion?

Howson: People use the terms metrics and KPIs interchangeably. But, really, if you think of a metric, it’s any measure -- it could be sales, customer churn, head count. A key performance indicator is usually measured against a target. If you want sales to grow 10%, it’s measuring how well you’re tracking against that target. The confusing thing is that KPIs can be embedded within a dashboard, and that usually raises the questions: “Where do you get the targets from and how do those targets get modified?” With a full scorecard application, users have the ability to modify their targets based on external events. In a dashboard, you can’t do that. A target is stored somewhere and usually updated once a year or once a quarter.

It sounds like scorecards are pretty dynamic. Why would businesses choose dashboards when they could be using scorecards?

Howson: A dashboard can be what I call operational. It can be used in a call center: How many customers are on hold right now? How many calls have you handled today? Or it can be a management-style dashboard where it’s updated on a daily, weekly or quarterly basis, but it’s showing you the state of whatever you’re responsible for.  A marketing manager might have a dashboard showing how many promotional events they’ve had, what sales has been year-to-date, but [it may only be] updated monthly. That helps manage the business. With a scorecard, you need high-level executive sponsorship. A scorecard helps keep people aligned with the strategic goals of the business; a dashboard can be used to help manage the business on a day-to-day basis. I would say a dashboard is required and a scorecard, it’s optional. It’s value-added, but it’s optional.

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Where are dashboards headed?

Howson: Adoption right now is low. I think the biggest thing is more companies are buying these modules and deploying these modules this year or the next couple of years. There’s a fight within companies because the core BI team or central IT is so constrained: Who is going to own those modules and develop them? Is it OK for individual lines of business to deploy their own dashboards or how much does IT help facilitate that? Some of these products really started in the SMBs [small and medium-sized businesses] or the lines of business, though we’re seeing some of these products become more enterprise class. We saw that with Tableau 7, which added some capabilities to be more enterprise class. QlikTech has shared some of their roadmap with me, and they’re also looking at more enterprise-class capabilities as well.

You taught a class on dashboards at the TDWI conference. What trends or questions did participants ask about?

Howson: One innovation that will affect all of these vendors going forward is mobile. What surprised me in the class, I always think a dashboard as only being suitable on a tablet computer, so iPads, but some people were saying, “No, we want it on our smartphones as well.” Right now, most of the dashboard vendors are supporting iPads; it’s whether or not they do it natively or via HTML5 or if it’s even via a browser, which I think provides the worst user experience. Very few are supporting BlackBerrys, so what’s happening with that market.

Have you heard any concern from users about how “big data” may affect dashboards?

Howson: Big data is important but, right now, big data is sometimes too synonymous with Hadoop. I like the three Vs definition of big data: variety -- Hadoop speaks to that; velocity and volume. Velocity and volume certainly applies to dashboards. An interesting product, Endeca, who Oracle acquired last year, handles that variety. I shared a sample dashboard of [Endeca’s] on warranty claim analysis where it can analyze the textual information: Notes that maybe an automotive engineer wrote in the comment field about what the problem was with a particular car. It analyzes that data, creates alerts, gives you numbers around that. They’re one of the few I would say looking at the variety thing as well. I think that’s very bleeding edge for customers.

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