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Nothing sours a good Chobani and granola breakfast like reading an article titled “3 reasons to hate BI dashboards.” Ouch. Joe McKendrick at ZDNet was echoing the sentiments of Mark Smith, CEO & Chief Research Officer of Ventana Research, laid down in his perspective: “The Pathetic State of Dashboards.” Double ouch.

We know both McKendrick and Smith are speaking in sweeping generalizations, but it wouldn’t be the internet if someone didn’t puff up his or her chest and commit to a rebuttal. The former article summarized Smith’s points into three parts. While we can’t speak for all BI dashboards out there available to consumers, let’s see how InsightSquared’s sales dashboards stand up to his critiques:

1. “They haven’t gotten much smarter in the last 20 years.”

Excel 1.0

Excel 1.0

Considering Excel 1.0 didn’t even arrive until 1985, that’s a pretty bold statement to make. Quasar Systems Ltd was renamed Cognos, the enterprise-level BI powerhouse, in 1982 and it wasn’t until around 2007 that Cognos really started to push forward its business intelligence product along with its acquisition by IBM. It stands to reason that BI dashboards have come a long way in 20 years.

One obvious area where BI tools have gotten smarter is predictive analytics, which has increased in prominence and accuracy in the past few years, largely due to a) the amount of data being captured recently, and b) the ability to intelligently analyze historical and real-time data to model the future.

Sales Forecast by Client

Sales Forecast by Client

The above dashboard from InsightSquared answers the question “What is our sales pipeline worth, by client?” in a simple to read, predictive chart with a drillable and interactive visualization. This type of information wasn’t readily available in dashboards 20 years ago.

2. “They don’t prioritize information.”

In Smith’s piece, he writes: “It’s a big mistake to place several bar and pie charts on a screen side by side and assume that business viewers will know what they mean and what is important in them,” and goes on to say, “We need to prioritize the information and make it like the news, with headlines and stories that people can read to determine if they need to make decisions or take action.”

Except for his assertion that this doesn’t exist, we couldn’t agree more. To his point, BI tools have traditionally been confusing and hard to read. Modern dashboards are striving to be as clear as possible. Here’s an example from our instance of a Goals Dashboard:

Activity Goals Dashboard

Activity Goals Dashboard

a) We prioritize what you need to see on a page by simply putting one chart per page. You can’t miss it. b) Each chart starts with a plain English, informative header that states exactly the main point of the chart. c) Our charts are visualized so it takes just a glance to see the good and bad. Here, the shorter bars clearly indicate employees lagging against their goals.

Furthermore, modern BI dashboards are getting more intelligence about putting forth the data most important to specific industries. Web-based dashboards can be skinned to verticals, and your BI solution can display only the charts that is important for the industry you’re in, based on analysis of many other similar companies. This is another way these dashboards can prioritize information.

3. “They don’t help individuals take action based on the information they receive.”

What Smith laments here is the lack of “collaboration through dialogue to address issues and opportunities” that the data points out. Basically, he wants BI dashboards to affect a cultural shift, driving employees to really use data to make better decisions. It’s not enough to present data, Smith wants BI tools to present action items.

To have this happen, you absolutely need an analytics solution that covers his earlier two points. Furthermore, you want a tool that not only provides actionable intelligence, but encourages collaboration in multiples ways. One way modern dashboards attempt to push your company’s data culture in a collaborative direction is by building in a way to send emails right from within dashboards:

Native email system in InsightSquared

Native notes system in InsightSquared

Native notes system to user

A note to the owner of an opportunity

Additionally, the InsightSquared product provides nightly emails to provide another way for employees to communicate data, and “My Reports” that show individual employees dashboards specific to their own metrics. All these features utilize the power of being completely web-enabled, so that they are exploratory and easy to navigate to the information you want to see and share.

We won’t argue Smith’s point that traditionally, BI dashboards have been lacking in clarity and actionable advice. However, the advances in BI tools in the last few years definitely should not be ignored as smaller and more agile players in the space continue to develop new dashboards that are changing how companies view the usefulness of analytics.

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Samuel Clemens
Sam is founder and chief of product & marketing for InsightSquared. Previously, Sam was VP Product at HubSpot, VP Product at BzzAgent, and on the founding team at Elance.com. His background also includes venture capital with Greylock Partners, the Algorithms group at Amazon.com, and management consulting with Booz Allen Hamilton. Sam has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a B.S. in Applied Math from Yale. In his off time he dives shipwrecks in the New England area.
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