Business Intelligence and Dashboard-March 2010
Five years ago, many of the salespeople at Fridley-based medical device maker Medtronic felt like they were flying blind. In order to get access to sales performance data crucial to decision making, the sales force in the Cardiac Rhythm Disease Management (CRDM) unit had to request reports from the company’s finance analysts, who often were busy with other tasks and couldn’t always supply data in a timely fashion. Salespeople couldn’t apply resources in optimal ways and take effective corrective actions.
That’s when Medtronic decided to work with Eagan-based BI Consulting Group to implement business intelligence technology. The team introduced performance “dashboards” to give CRDM salespeople greater access to key trend and sales numbers. Dashboards are computer displays that use gauges, dials, maps, charts, and other graphic elements to give users an at-a-glance view of how their businesses are faring against key performance indicators. Linked to a company’s data warehouses, the dashboards are continually refreshed with the latest sales number, inventory levels, manufacturing times compared to benchmarks, customer service figures, or performance against strategic initiatives. They typically combine data from a variety of sources into a single view.
As word spread among the CRDM sales force about advantages of the dashboards, demand quickly grew. “We went from about five users to some 2,000 software licenses almost overnight,” says Rose Woo, senior principal business lead for the CRDM field organization.
As the amount of performance data that businesses generate proliferates and more vendors roll out new dashboard tools, their use has grown rapidly over the past five years. Even the federal government is getting into the act, introducing its Federal IT Portfolio Dashboard (it.usaspending.gov), which allows the general public and federal agencies to monitor federal information technology spending. The latest dashboard incarnations feature ever-more compelling data visualizations.
But adopting dashboards isn’t as simple as putting charts and graphs on line. Achieving that level of adoption first requires some careful design; a pipeline that can reliably feed accurate, fresh data into the system; and management-level sponsorship.
For some, the challenge rests more on determining what to measure than how to measure it. At Carmichael Lynch, the Minneapolis-based advertising and marketing firm, director of marketing analytics Greg Becker uses business intelligence strategies and dashboards to track the payoff of client marketing expenditures. Dashboards provide a weekly or monthly barometer of promotion effectiveness and how marketing initiatives are performing against goals.
Becker uses one dashboard to track marketing spending for a large car-manufacturing client. Without access to the client’s sales forecasts, he uses information from his own data warehouse to forecast how he believes the company and the industry will perform in the coming year. Becker worked with Lancet Software, a business intelligence consulting firm in Burnsville, to help him integrate a dashboard from vendor MicroStrategy. Lancet also helped structure the data warehouse that feeds information to the dashboard.
“The beauty of the dashboard is its simplicity,” Becker says. “After you’ve done all of the data gathering and all of the math, the output is a simple, easy-to-understand graphical representation that tells you how you are tracking against your goals.”
The tool also allows Becker to create customized reports of other marketing metrics. He can access data about competitors’ actions, clients’ customer demographics, and customer surveys. With one glance, for example, he can see how often certain car-buying customers are doing research on line versus past periods, or how well others have responded to e-mail marketing or direct marketing campaigns versus previous quarters.
Becker’s biggest challenge around dashboards hasn’t been ensuring data that’s fed into the system is accurate and timely, but rather deciding what metrics or key performance indicators to bring into the system and emphasize. “When our clients know what the key drivers of their business are, making that decision is easier,” Becker says. “But when they are uncertain, we need to do more research and sourcing ourselves about their brands and their business sector to understand those drivers.” That typically means tracking down information from government agencies, including economic data, then devising ways to efficiently bring it into Carmichael’s data warehouse.
The cost of dashboards will vary depending on the data sources, how widely it’s deployed, and the functions and features required. Vendors typically set their costs based on levels of usage.
The National Marrow Donor Program, a Minneapolis-based non- profit, matches those with leukemia and other life-threatening illnesses with bone marrow donors or umbilical cord blood. The nature of the organization’s business puts a premium on the ability to rapidly access data about patient and donor conditions, says Michael Jones, the program’s chief information officer.
“We are constantly collecting, analyzing, and reporting on information surrounding patient conditions, much of it confidential in nature,” Jones says. “When we gather that data, we need to be able to go in and extract out themes and trends to link with historical research–related components to see how patient conditions are progressing as a result of different treatment approaches.”
When you consider that the organization’s registry has more than 8 million donors and nearly 160,000 blood cord units, you understand why Jones, working with Brooklyn Center–based DBI Consulting, has begun implementing business intelligence strategies and dashboarding tools as part of an enterprise architecture initiative. A nascent data warehouse features the “relevant beginnings of our operational transaction data stores,” Jones says.
A key goal of the initiative is to give program physicians better and real-time access to information that can help them make faster, well-informed decisions regarding both patients and donors. For example, donors regularly undergo physical exams as part of the matching process, and there can be underlying conditions that arise in those exams that physicians need to be aware of. The donor program houses data about patients, donors, and umbilical cord units that can date back decades, Jones says, so it’s important it be stored in logical and easily accessed ways.
“You have to decide, for example, for a certain treatment that was done five or 10 years ago, is that still relevant to determining how we would establish health protocols right now?” he says.
Jones says one of the biggest benefits of implementing dashboards will be enabling physicians to access and interpret data on their own, with little need to go through the IT department to make it happen.
“If every time our physicians need a special report on a patient with aplastic anemia or mild lymphoma, or a certain slice of historical data, and they have to go through IT to get it, that holds up the process,” Jones says. “We want them to be able to click indicators on the dashboard and call up that data in easy-to-read graphic form. It is a time and efficiency issue.”
Jones believes it’s important that business units put the same stock in business intelligence technologies that the IT department does. “If the business units don’t have a good understanding of what BI is, how it is used, and how it can benefit their daily decision making, you will merely be investing a lot of money in expensive technologies that the business unit managers will likely not buy in and use,” he says.
At Spader Business Management, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota–based consulting firm that helps small businesses improve their productivity and profitability, the introduction of dashboards has taken its consulting expertise to another level, says Noel Lais, vice president of operations.
Spader helps businesspeople understand the financial side of their businesses. “There was a time we [only] summarized numbers for our clients in what were dense 90-page reports, but with the advent of dashboards, we can make the numbers ‘speak’ even more to our clients,” Lais says. “With some financial data we have been presenting for 20 years, it’s like clients are seeing it for the first time because of the graphics format.”
Lais worked with iBusiness Solutions, an Edina-based business intelligence consulting firm, to help conceptualize and implement Spader’s dashboards. Spader recently launched a new online portal where its clients can enter a password and access their financial data in dashboard format to track performance against budgets. One service it offers, called “management groups,” enables similar but non-competing businesses to share and compare financial information with the idea of helping everyone improve. IBusiness created a customized dashboard for the group so its members can pull up their latest numbers on line, check the average financial performance of their peers, see who ranks in the top 20 percent, and benchmark against industry standards. The goal is to encourage sharing of best practices and advice surrounding financial management, Lais says.
Like the dashboards on cars, business dashboards can provide a critical guidance system to help you navigate the roadways of the marketplace. More and more organizations view them as essential tools for managing burgeoning data streams and reaching strategic destinations.