How to do dashboards right for best results

Dashboards are electronic, often real-time snapshots of key performance measures that indicate the overall financial and/or operational health of the business or department. They pull data from multiple sources to graphically present key measures on a single screen. Their value is that they provide departmental users with a holistic view of enterprise performance as well as information on how and where users fit in. They also provide alerts about potential problems before they occur.

Convincing managers and other workers accustomed to mountains of paper reports to actually use a digital dashboard is more often than not a major challenge, IT managers say. Getting them to trust the information they find there can be an even higher hurdle. IT must also continuously ensure that it’s aggregating, refreshing and presenting the right data to the various user constituencies.

Here’s how some smart companies addressed the thornier issues of expanding dashboard usage beyond the executive le-vel, building trust among all users and ensuring that dashboard gauges are indeed tracking and displaying the information that users need to do their jobs and run a profitable business.


Lands’ End Inc. started using dashboards in 2002, launching what it calls a “workbench” for tracking inventory. In addition to posting summary data about inventory on hand and on order from suppliers, the initial implementation of the Dodgeville, Wis.-based retailer’s workbench also issued alerts about potential shortages based on trends in incoming customer orders.

After the 2002 holiday season, the company had cut lost sales by one-third at its busiest time of the year. The firm wasted no time in broadcasting that news, which prompted other business units to approach IT with ideas and requests for customized dashboards of their own. Among other things, they came up with an idea for tying together data on sales promotions and performance to measure overall business effectiveness. Today, Lands’ End has five workbenches customized for different business functions.

Next, Lands’ End plans to automate the inventory management workbench to take specific actions based on various preset triggers. For example, if the workbench indicated a low inventory level on a hot-selling item, it would generate an order for that item, which would then need only to be authorized by an inventory planner.

“The key ingredient (for increasing usage) is that this isn’t just an online reporting tool anymore. It becomes a proactive workbench that provides information on which action can be taken,” CIO Frank Giannantonio says.


Constant references to dashboard information in memos, reports and performance evaluations also help boost usage. Frequent verbal reminders of the data in management meetings and in memos, plus the president also referring to it continuously, motivates people, reports Sue Schade, CIO at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Build trust by providing the ability to drill down deeper into data. One firm equips its dashboard with hot links to additional explanatory information about figures contained in the snapshots.

At Brigham and Women’s, 29 unique data sources feed into the hospital’s single dashboard to present scorecard information. “And with anything you look at, you can click through to find out who the source is and who to talk to if you have a question about what you see there,” says Schade. “If someone suspects data is not accurate and wants to dispute it, they can click through and go right to the source.”


Walt St. John, manager of business information in the aftermarket division of Alstom Power Inc. in Windsor, Conn., says building trust has been especially difficult with users in sales. “A lot of these people have historically been using their gut to determine who their best customers are and what their strongest products are. And the dashboard tells them differently,” he says.

That’s why data accuracy is especially critical, St. John says.

“One of my main responsibilities is to do data verification before I publish anything and make sure everything on the dashboard and in the background is correct,” he says.

Delivering the right information to run the business first and foremost requires that the right people outside of IT select and set key performance indicators, which are the very heart of any dashboard.


Analysts at Nucleus Research Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., note that role-based dashboards customized to the needs of users in a department, such as those in use at Lands’ End, are often associated with faster adoption rates and higher usage rates than one-size-fits-all models.

One company gathered 60 to 80 leaders from all departments at a two-day retreat. Together they hammered out 50 performance measures, which are now tracked electronically, updated automatically and presented in a dashboard that’s accessible to users via the Web. Once key performance measures are established, the most important thing for IT is to realize that they will almost certainly change, and so will the dashboards.

“We’re continually getting feedback from our users about what’s good and what’s bad about it, so we’re continually trying to make the dashboard more user-friendly,” says St. John. “It’s a process, not a destination.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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