Friday, September 12th, 2008
about that dashboard

Feeling overwhelmed by data, individuals and organizations are looking for ways to analyze and visualize the information.  Increasingly, they turn to something they call a “dashboard,” a term coined in homage to the automobile dashboard:

A simple one such as this actually sets up some interesting questions for organizations.  First, what gear are you in?  How fast are you going?  Does the pace fit the road you have chosen?  When you look at the tachometer, is the engine (the organization) being run at a reasonable pace to deliver that speed without undue stress, or is the temperature rising to an unsustainable level?  Is there sufficient fuel in the form of the various resources (capital, people, technology, ideas) that you need?  And how long have you been driving this model — is it time to trade it in?

In practice, dashboards in companies are used for less philosophical questions.  They are meant to put important information together in a visual way so that the user can quickly see what is going on, just as in a car.

Looking at the structural components of a dashboard, it’s always hard to know how much to think about the aesthetics of such things.  User experience is important, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  (I do think that many dashboards I see feature garish tones and poorly-conceived designs.)  Much easier is the question of data quality:  garbage in, garbage out.

Exactly what to show and how to show it are the key questions.  Dashboards are no different than any other reporting system:  If you don’t design in flexibility, it’s likely that you will end up with something that is outdated before too long, and the usefulness of the tool will decline unless a developer (perhaps “redeveloper” is a better term) is an integral part of the feedback loop.

One great benefit of dashboards is their interactivity.  The opportunity to “drill down” relies on the integration of the data with the tool itself in a way that assists the user in identifying the essential information.  Truly powerful dashboards incorporate the ability to ask new questions and see relationships that weren’t previously considered.

For the leaders of organizations, dashboards can support the review of key metrics.  This can amount to more “looking over the shoulder” day to day than is comfortable for some employees, and those, like salespeople, that must “self report” some data items may be inclined to match their input to the desired dashboard output.

Fortunately, many of the important things to be monitored in an investment firm are not subject to such manipulation.  There are positions in a portfolio or ratings that are published.  The securities in question have attributes that can be captured, providing a picture of exposures at any point or over time.  They can be looked at by analyst, group, portfolio, asset class, or across the organization, giving the “driver” who takes the time to look at the dashboard and its supporting detail a view of how things are changing, where the bets are, and what that could mean.

Developing such guidance systems in a way that fits what you do is crucial in today’s data-rich world, and it certainly beats having to call a tow truck to get you out of the ditch.