5 Hot Business Intelligence Dashboard Topics in 2009

Even before the hectic events in the financial markets, 2008 was an eventful year for those of us in business intelligence. We saw adoption of the dashboard design paradigm accelerate, interesting developments in the dashboard product space and the growing sophistication of business dashboard user interface design. What we can be assured of in 2009 is that our space will continue to be exciting.

The business world in general, and the BI professional in particular, finds the arrival of 2009 bringing with it the combined blessing and curse of “interesting times”. While exchanging New Year’s greetings with many Dashboard Spy readers and contributors, I found certain “top-of-mind” topics appearing on everyone’s list. In this post, I share 5 of what will most certainly be the hottest topics of discussion when discussing business intelligence dashboards in 2009.

Dashboard Topic #1

“Business Intelligence, the recession-proof application”

Corporate spending has ground to a halt. This has impacted in a dramatic way the world of IT where, even in the best of times, we have to work hard at proving ROI and business justification. IT managers now are scraping by with reduced staff and application funding. However, I’ve received reports from quite a few organizations where business intelligence dashboard budgets survive. In fact, a few new dashboard reporting projects received the go-ahead despite cutbacks on other technology spending.

Does this indicate that business intelligence tools are recession-proof? Are BI applications the rare “bull in the bear market” because BI is finally recognized as the tool that companies rely on to measure and track their way out of hard economic times?

As some savvy Dashboard Spies over at LogiXML write in a post titled “Business Intelligence in a Recession: a Luxury or a Smart Investment?“, whether or not BI is recession-proof in a certain company depends on the perceived value of BI within that company. There are basically 2 kinds of companies:

  1. The kind for whom BI is a bit like an amulet–just wear it around your organization’s neck and things may start looking up again.
  2. The kind who views BI for what it is: a tool. To be useful, tools have to have a specific purpose. If the strategy is to go on the offensive and gain market share, then BI is to this purpose what a hammer is to a nail.

For the first kind of company, BI may end up being a luxury. Analyst firm Gartner states that only five to ten percent of companies actually get into BI with a clear strategy, which means that many organizations unfortunately fall within this category.

For the second kind of company, BI becomes a way to achieve the goal of gaining market share through a solid command of their vertical – which means a clear understanding of their data. So as they implement BI, every effort is carefully aimed towards this purpose – and the chances of success skyrocket.

Naturally, buying only as much BI as you need and ensuring that you don’t have to beef up your IT team to implement it and maintain it is a way to ensure that your investment is smart.

How recession-proof are business intelligence dashboards in your company? There is no doubt of the need to quickly and accurately measure and track your company metrics in order to formula a response in this time of crisis. But can you actually take advantage of this need to make your BI budget not only survive but thrive?

As Shadan Malik, CEO of iDashboards, commented:

It is very clear that 2009 will bring pared down budgets, requiring businesses to do more with less. There will be more pressure for people to produce and demonstrate their worth. To ensure businesses remain on track during this turbulent time, affordable BI tools, specifically visual reporting tools designed to provide the insight needed for quick intelligent decision-making, will be in high demand.

This will bring about an increase in the deployment of affordable, bolt-on dashboard software. Because dashboards offer a representation of the state of the business, they not only provide the management team with insight into the bottom line, but they also give other staff a view of the top line. This bi-directional system will ensure complete visibility into the data and that all transparency polices are followed properly.

These tools will also be used for another form of business intelligence, employee performance. Systems once deployed only to monitor forecasts and actuals will now be used to show individuals their achievements, allowing organizations to track employee success against predetermined business goals, fostering a “culture of individual accountability.”

Moving forward, we will see greater personalization and customization in how data is presented, as information assets will be more readily available to every worker at all layers of the organization. Access to actionable data, will transform how organizations strive to meet goals and enhance their ability in setting them.

The idea of greater personalization and customization brings us to my second “hot” dashboard topic for 2009.

Dashboard Topic #2

“The Power of The Mash-Up Dashboard”

Remember what Metcalfe, one of the ethernet inventors, said about networks? He had a formula for expressing the power of the “network effect” where the value of the network increases exponential when more users join the network. We are seeing this power come into the realm of the enterprise dashboard with the boom in the availability and promotion of RSS, APIs and other technologies and licensing agreements for the unfettered sharing of data from countless providers across the world. As more and more providers offer their data, the network effect will ensure greater participation. 2009 will be a break out year for mashup dashboarding.

The mashup dashboard takes a mix and match approach to enterprise dashboard content that provides a real user-centric focus. Think combination of business intelligence applications, reporting engines and web portals.

In 2009, more companies than ever will make their databases and application engines available for use across the internet. While TOS (Terms of Service) agreements will be in effect, the access to the data is generally granted at no cost. This has opened the world of the enterprise dashboard and made the dashboard design pattern a smorgashboard of content from a range of data providers. This “mash-up” of content serves up unique combinations of dashboard content for the ever-hungry dashboard end user. Once they’ve tasted the mash-up dashboard, there’s no going back.

Kevin Yin, CEO of SitScape, a company specializing in a software product that allows dashboard end users to create their own mashup dashboards from web sources, took time out from demo’ing his product at the Red Herring Global 2009 Tech Start-up Show to answer a few questions from the Dashboard Spy:

Spy: Why is the Mash-Up Dashboard becoming such a trend now?

Kevin: It is a natural evolution with the mix of the following ideas : the maturity of technologies, end user’s mindset and expectations, and the impact of the advancement of the consumer Web 2.0 world. The enterprise user now demands those approaches as well. The kind of projects or capabilities
that typically required 6 month or 1-year project to do by a company’s engineering team or consulting
firms are now expected to be done in a much faster time frame. And incorporating the latest advances in a personalized user interface that offers improved productivity, faster decision making and extraordinary business value.

Spy: That’s a lot to ask. Is the technology behind this approach very complicated?

Kevin: It might be, but the software should hide the complexity so users will not feel it. We must empower the dashboard end user to do what they want to do much faster and easier. A good example is the evolution of sending messages. When first using telegrams or letters, the expenses were quite high. But because it provided such value, the demand grew over the years and technology eventually made it pervasive. Think now of email, SMS and blogs and how easy, low cost, on-demand and personalized communication is. Enterprise dashboard technology needs to move to that direction.

The approach that Kevin’s company took to creating a unique mash-up dashboard for each business end user can be seen in how his Situational Dashboard Assembler software enables a mashup of live components from web applications. Simply indicate what live data sources you want on your mashup dashboard, and presto!

Dashboard Topic #3

“The Unavoidable Dashboard” or “Here Come the Widgets!”

We are seeing very interesting developments in dashboard software. Things that we take for granted, such as where to place a dashboard (web-based, rich client, etc) are being called into question.

For organizations to achieve real returns on their business intelligence efforts, there is one startlingly simple requirement – “Get the data in front of the manager”. This data visibilty has become a real challenge in today’s hyperactive management environment. When the typical executive is bombarded with reports to study, phones to answer and emails to scan, even clicking on an icon or typing in the URL of their business intelligence system becomes too much to ask. Sounds silly, I know, but it’s true.

The challenge then becomes how to make our dashboards “unavoidable” so that busy managers can’t ignore the signals from our KPIs and metrics?

From the forward edge of business dashboard techniques comes the idea of desktop dashboards. With the end user now getting comfortable with widgets and gadgets (those mini applications that appear on your PC or Mac as part of the windows environment), we will see more and more adoption of this technique to deliver business intelligence.

Allan Wille, CEO of Klipfolio, a leader in the desktop dashboard space, offers some insight into the advantages of placing the dashboard right on the desktop:

Spy: Did you say that there are 3 really important things in business intelligence dashboards?

Allan: Yes, location, location, location! Actually, there are indeed several key principles in BI dashboards and one of them is the Rule of Placement. The idea is to make the KPIs unavoidable. Why not place them right on the desktop so that they load right away when the end user boots up. There is no sense in asking the busy executive to launch a browser to log in to a BI app or click on an application icon.

Editor’s note: See The 3 Rules of Dashboarding for a discussion of The Rule of Placement, The Rule of Design and The Rule of Accuracy.

Spy: So the user doesn’t even have to explicitly log into their business intelligence application?

Allan: Right. In fact, application adoption is another reason why companies are adopting desktop dashboards. If you go through the effort of launching a major BI product and no one winds up using it for whatever reason, that’s a really bad thing. So what you can do is provide a desktop dashboard that surfaces KPIs and metrics from that BI application and let’s the users link through to the application when they notice something of interest on the desktop dashboard. So the desktop dashboard can complement that CRM, making it easier for the data to be displayed so people don’t have to log in, they don’t have to go to various tabs or different Web pages to see the data. Everything is basically there in front of them without them having to do anything. Furthermore, we can then simplify the interaction between the dashboard and the Web based system. So for example, they can initiate a lead right from the desktop or they can change the status on a certain opportunity right from the desktop without having to log in.

Spy: Using the desktop as BI real estate seems obvious but I can’t claim that I would have ever thought of it myself.

Allan: We use a side bar approach. It does offer additional real estate, but the nature of it forces the companies to prioritize their KPIs and metrics. If you have a side bar on the right side of your computer, you basically have a fifth or a sixth of your desktop real estate that you are playing with – this mandates that customers have to choose the most important information to put on the desktop. We’re finding that our customers go through the exercise of identifying “what is the key data?”, “what is it important for our customers to see?” and more importantly “what is not important for employees to bother with?” to great benefit.

Editor’s note: Allan’s company, Serence, rebranded itself as Klipfolio after the name of its desktop dashboard. Check them out at www.klipfolio.com.

Dashboard Topic #4

“The Eye Candy Controversy, Continued”

Several dashboarding platforms released upgrades during 2008 that take graphics to a new level. Flash-based bling and web 2.0 styling is here to stay. “Create your own dashboard” software now makes it extremely easy to add all the glitz and chrome you want to your business intelligence interface. Project sponsors who want to show slickness love this functionality but the information visualization best practice crowd is choking on their pie charts and loading up their bullet graphs. The “eye candy” versus “clarity of data visualization” controversy will no doubt continue to grow in 2009.

2008 was a strong year for the information visualization and charting crowd with many dashboards adopting best practice techniques such as sparklines, bullet charts and monochromatic color schemes. Look at the various business dashboard contests and you’ll find the top contenders all sporting similar aesthetics. See the Best Excel Dashboard of 2008 for a typical sparkline-based dashboard.

In the other corner, gleefully bouncing around between rounds with the frustrated information visualization gurus are the cheerful masses. To say they are thrilled with their new found graphic power would be the understatement of 2008. With click and drag ease, they are filling their dashboard portlets with slick-looking graphs that shine and reflect light. It seems that ocassional the right chart gets selected but that almost seems to be beside the point.

As a dashboard adoption observer and business intelligence industry reporter, I will state my opinion that at this point of the maturity curve of business dashboards, it’s great that the dashboard end user or department level dashboard builder has the technology available to produce great looking visual interfaces for business intelligence. Yes, there are plenty of “wrong” practices out there, but I’d rather enjoy this frenzy of do-it-yourself dashboarding than to wait forever for IT and their data visualization experts to get something “right”.

Let me also state that the eye candy is not soley the result of end-user produced / dashboard platform-based dashboards. With the common availabilty of flash-based charting components such as the nicely designed ones from fusioncharts.com, the latest generation of in-house, custom developed dashboards also shine and sparkle when it comes to charts.

Our dashboards have never looked this nice. But is this coming at a cost? Consult your local data visualization expert.

Dashboard Topic #5

“The Rise of the InfoGraphic”

2008 was a banner year for infographics. I mean that literally. News sites such as the New York Times have set up considerable resources for the production and prominent display of data-driven information graphics. As explained in this interview with the NY Times Graphics Director Steve Duenes, information graphics are taken quite seriously.

Visually, information graphics typically look exactly like the business dashboards that we study at The Dashboard Spy. I would guess that for many newspaper readers, these infographics are the first interaction they have had with what we call business dashboards. Some very popular infographic dashboards from 2008 include:

For an expert’s view of infographics, I’ll point to you my favorite article of 2008 on infograhics. It’s by information visualization ace Stephen Few and it’s an article titled “Infographics – It’s Time to Put Them to the Test“.

From his analysis:

It is definitely true that, when trying to communicate certain information, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” As technologies such as television, video games, and the Internet fill our lives with increasing amounts of visual content, the potential of visualization is now taken for granted. The question remains, however, “Are we using this visual language effectively?”

This form and use of visualization has become popular in the last few years. We now see frequent examples of infographics in major news publications. I’ve seen examples that work to communicate effectively, but more that, in my opinion, do not. What accounts for these differences in the effectiveness of infographics?

I believe infographics have great potential, but their effectiveness must be honed through empirical study. Infographics practitioners must become more introspective, more critical of their work, if they wish to give something useful to the world. Most of the infographics that I’ve seen are filled with what Tufte calls “chartjunk.” Why are we still producing chartjunk?

His article is thought provoking and well worth reading. Read up, because infographics are definitely here to stay and will become even more adopted by the media in 2009. The public will be hard pressed to differentiate between data-driven infographic applications and business dashboards. For that matter, so am I.

New Year’s Resolution for The Dashboard Spy

At the start of 2009, I feel confident that no matter what occurs during the year, there will be plenty to study and learn from in terms of dashboard examples and best practices. I’ve personally spent the last few years collecting, collating and commenting on business intelligence dashboards and can tell you that the dashboard as a design paradigm is poised to really break out. We will see a dashboard page as part of every corporate application. In fact, it’s finally dawning on everybody that the dashboard is the perfect home page.

I’d like to thank all the Dashboard Spy readers who have helped the Dashboard Spy network of business intelligence resources grow. It’s through your contributions and examples of BI dashboards that have powered the growth of my sites. I’ve seen plenty of Dashboard Spy impersonators spring up with their own dashboard example sites and I welcome the growth in the space. It’s through sharing with the dashboarding and business intelligence community that we all continue to learn what the real best practices are.

My resolution for 2009 is to really light a fire in the business intelligence dashboards space and grow the Dashboard Spy community and resources. I’ll work hard at allowing the readers to directly contribute content themselves. I’ve acquired the domain dashboards.org and will be launching a community-driven resource that will allow you to contribute and share your dashboards with ease. I’ll be networking and really driving the community aspects. For that, I’ve decided to drop my “secret identity”. It served me well when people were reluctant to share their dashboards and were comforted by the ego-free approach that I took. That was years ago and, today, sharing dashboard screenshots is common place.

My name is Hubert Lee and I’m The Dashboard Spy. I look forward to interacting with you personally. You can send me a LinkedIn connection invite to this personal address: Hubert Lee. Just let me know that you are a Dashboard Spy reader. Feel free to make contact. I’m sure we’ve got lots to talk about. Also, I’ve got podcasting on my mind, so if you’re willing to be interviewed for an upcoming series of podcasts, let me know.

Good luck in 2009 and Happy Dashboarding!

Warm regards from Hubert Lee, The Dashboard Spy

Hubert Lee  Dashboard Spy

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Tags: Dashboard Software