Sunday, November 9, 2008

Dashboards and the hottest trends in executive reporting

If you browse through my previous blogs and profile, you will easily find that, I am a person greatly interested in graphical representation of ideas & data (Drawing, charting, visual thinking  ...etc). I have a nick name in my office (Present and even previous jobs!) – “Mr. Colour”!
This is because of the colourful reports which I produce week after week, as part of my job. Being a planning professional , I produce a lot of reports every week (Project specific & organisational).
Microsoft Excel is my all time favourite tool. It is a blend of an ultimate data processing/ analysing tool and a nice data visualisation tool. Excel is the little big thing that makes my life much easier by automating several reports. I have a hell lot of data to process every week and report. I have made some standard templates which make data entry and reporting quite easy. Infact I only make the re-usable templates. The required data fields are filled in at the end of the week and reports are generated. The interface is designed in simple manner so that data entry is minimum. I extensively use formulas and macros to impart ‘intelligence’ and automation.
There are some great websites which give me tips & tricks on advanced excel data processing & charting.
If you are a frequent browser in excel based reporting techniques, you may find the following as the hottest topics or say ‘hottest tags’:
  • Dashboards                   
  • Incell charting               
  • Sparklines                     
  • Bullet graphs                 
  • Heat maps                    
  • NY Times info-graphics
  • Edward Tufte               
I am afraid that the love for incell charting is going beyond limits! People may soon start qualifying dash boards based on the number of incell charts used! (I hope I am allowed to use humour in blogs!) My understanding is that, growth in the financial analysis process in previous years has resulted in such a huge attraction towards dash boards and incell charting. Finance, especially stock market is one place where you have quantum of data which changes every second. To analyse and report such ever changing complex data, innovative dashboards evolved. This has obviously spread into other sectors as well, but finance professional are the one’s who use dashboards extensively. The second position will go ‘Marketing & Sales’.
Google analytics” is one of the best examples of clever implementation of online dashboard concepts (Or in general ‘Dashboard concepts”). I think NY Times Online really rocks in the domain of info-graphics!
Dashboards are mainly meant for decision makers who don’t have time to go in detail but can’t miss trends and alerts. This provides a challenge for the executives to prepare ‘effective’ dashboards (usually single page) which give the ‘whole idea of the thing’ ‘at a glance’!
Crystal-Xcelsius Dashboard :
 Crystal-Xcelsius provide a great tool to produce Adobe Flash based interactive dashboards easily.As their website say "Xcelsius 2008 is the first and only dynamic and customizable data visualization software that enables users of different skill levels to create insightful and engaging dashboards from any data source with point-and-click ease. Xcelsius 2008 offers a comprehensive set of new features and integrations with Crystal Reports 2008BusinessObjects Enterprise XI 3.0, and other market-leading products—making it easier than ever to put the power of relevant intelligent information into the hands of business users."

Toolkit for great dashboards:

  • Good quality data, nicely arranged in table (Usually against a timeline)
  • MS Excel (Preferably Version 2000 or above)
  • Some nice web icons and textures
  • Paper & pencil (If you have the habit of planning interface layouts)
Steps for getting started

  • Identify the critical information to be displayed
  • Decide mode & unit of representation
  • Plan the lay out
  • Implement dashboard in excel by drawing charts / tables and linking data
  • Review & get approval
  • Release
You may find several innovative and creative experimentations in Excel charting, online. But my advice is never design your dashboard around a new charting concept. (Or simply, never include a graphical element in your report just because it looks cool.) Always design your dashboard around your data.
Identifying what really management want to know or need to know. Those should be in your dashboard. Selection of the type of chart & colours also does matter. Be consistent with colours (If you use green for + , never use red for + elsewhere!)
Project managers can impress senior management and clients by producing ‘Project Dashboards’. You may include standard and project specific indicators.

I ) Textual/ Tabular
  • Major milestones achieved (Show with time line & thumb nails of progress pics, if possible)
  • Activities progress during reporting period
  • Major issues, risks
  • Billing history
II) Graphical
  • Project S-Curve (Planned, actual, forecast)
  • Manpower histograms (Planned , actual)
  • Cost curve (Planned , actual, forecast)
  • Earned value analysis charts
  • CPI & SPI graph
  • Productivity curves
  • Analysis of head count , trades ,manhours( Normal hours v/s overtime) – Pie Charts
  • Safety reports (LTA ..etc)
If you have a good IT department with some skilled web developers, you may think about developing a web based project reporting system. This can be data driven (Database at the back end). The advantage of this feature is accessibility form anywhere for project team, clients and senior management.
You may check out some websites which provide some of these facilities for free. But suitability and effectiveness will depend up on the way project team utilise, the given facilities on these websites and nature of your project.

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