What Is an Executive Dashboard and Why Do You Need One?

Successful business leaders have learned this important lesson at one point or another: if you don’t give top priority to the things that matter most, your company will likely flounder for lack of clear direction. It’s a bit like trying to fly a plane without functional instruments. It might work some of the time, but it’s likely to get in trouble sooner rather than later.

Entrepreneurial consultant and writer Gino Wickman advises business leaders to think in terms of the big strategic goals and activities that drive their company’s success. He calls these the “big rocks”–the handful of truly important goals that you must complete over the next quarter or the next year to achieve the company’s strategic vision. Wickman based his “rocks” terminology on a familiar metaphor in which you place the most important goals (rocks) into a container first, and you can make the smaller, less important activities (gravel and sand) fit. This only works if  you attend to the big rocks first.

Executive dashboards help key business decision-makers stay focused on those “big rocks.” The concept of executive dashboards has become increasingly popular in recent years, as technology has made it possible to collect more data, then to analyze and summarize it in ways that vividly conveys what’s happening in the business in real time.

What Is an Executive Dashboard?

As summarized earlier, an executive dashboard is a visual representation of certain key performance indicators (KPIs) that a business leader or group designates as most important to overall business objectives. Dashboards tend to include quite a lot of quantitative information  represented using charts, graphs, interactive maps, and color-coded features that bring the data to life, making it quick and easy to get a read on the health of the business and performance against KPIs.

Executive dashboards are useful because they provide a consolidated view of the numbers that matter most. Although we use the term “executive dashboard” to define dashboard reporting aimed at a fairly broad audience of key decision-makers, there are often nuances with respect to the information that is most important to different audiences.

A CIO dashboard, for example, might focus on things such as mean time to resolution for IT service tickets, overall network health and performance, or progress against milestones for selected projects of strategic importance. For the CFO and the finance team, a dashboard might focus on key financial metrics such as topline revenue and gross margin, cash management statistics such as days sales outstanding (DSO), or return on working capital.

Although we frequently talk about “executive” dashboards, the overall concept of visual dashboard reports can be applied at virtually any level in the organization. Operational dashboards, for example, may be used by department heads to assess performance against the key metrics that matter most to them. A human resources manager might be interested in having a centralized view of open requisitions, incoming applications and candidate progress through the hiring process. In addition, they may need visibility to the number of employees who have completed a required training program, or turnover percentage by department or division.

What Makes a Good Executive Dashboard?

Although many standalone applications offer some kind of dashboard-like features, most lack the robust, multifaceted view that a purpose-built reporting and dashboard tool can provide. Many enterprise resource planning (ERP) products, for example, offer a few visual reports that look impressive at first glance, but which lack the capabilities needed to quickly and easily develop truly powerful executive dashboards to fit your purposes. Others are more robust, but require advanced technical skills and have a high total cost of ownership. To select the right tool for your organization, look for these features.

Easy Integration with Existing Systems

For the CEO and others in the C-suite, dashboards must often incorporate information from multiple systems, including ERP, customer relationship management (CRM), web analytics, project management tools, IT service management applications, or even social media feeds. Dashboard tools that lack the ability to connect to those multiple systems will put your users at a disadvantage, forcing them to consult multiple different tools to get information they need. Some tools do a bit better, allowing users to connect to different systems, but unfortunately not from within a single report. Ultimately, this fails to address the single most important requirement, which is to get a holistic view of the business with all of the information you need in one place.

Personalization

In addition to being able to access multiple data sources, dashboard reporting tools should enable users to easily tailor their view to meet their individual needs and preferences. If the CFO anticipates that cash flow management will be an important issue for the coming six months, he or she may want to add a few metrics such as days sales outstanding (DSO), days payable outstanding (DPO), and the quick ratio. At times when cash flow is a bit less of a concern, the CFO might choose to hide those metrics and focus on topline revenue instead.

As strategic and tactical priorities of the business change from quarter to quarter and year to year, business leaders must be able to easily fine-tune the information they’re getting through their executive dashboards.

Real-Time or Near-Real-Time Information

It’s also important that information delivered through executive dashboards is always up-to-date. Although it’s common for finance teams and many businesses to start out by using Excel spreadsheets to combine data from multiple systems and present it in a visually pleasing way, this manual way of doing things is extremely labor-intensive. It can also introduce errors into the data, and perhaps most importantly, it results in reports that are out-of-date even before they have been delivered to executive management.

In today’s world, business leaders need quick access to accurate information. They need to understand what’s happening on the ground and how it affects the KPIs that will ultimately drive their business success. Delayed information often leads to slower decisions. As rapidly as things can change in today’s global economy, delays can easily translate into lost opportunities. With up-to-the-minute information provided via dashboards that automatically pull data from ERP, CRM, or other systems, executives are in a better position to respond quickly and effectively.

Drill Down Capabilities

The goal of an effective dashboard is to provide insight and clarity. Unfortunately, dashboards can sometimes have the opposite effect, particularly if the numbers look unusually high or low, and a member of the C-suite team consequently has follow-up questions as to the root cause. With built-in drill-down capabilities, robust dashboard reporting tools enable users to explore the details behind their high-level KPIs. Instead of prompting a flurry of emails and high priority research requests, reporting tools with drill-down capabilities enable users to get the answers they need immediately, and without outside help.

Distribution and Access Control

You may develop executive dashboards with the intention to access them at any time, reflecting real-time information from the various source systems that feed them. In some cases, however, an organization may wish to schedule the distribution of dashboard reports to a selected audience–for example as a weekly performance report to department managers highlighting achievement against their department’s key performance indicators. The best dashboard reporting tools have these kinds of flexible scheduling and distribution capabilities.

While dashboards can be a wonderful way to summarize and share important information with key team members, it’s also important to prevent that information from falling into the wrong hands. Dashboard security is important on several different levels. First, it’s important to ensure that predefined dashboards are only available to those users who have the proper security credentials. Most companies, for example, would not want all of their frontline workers to have access to the sales pipeline data that might show up on their organization’s Sales Dashboard.

For users who have access to the report writing tools used to create dashboards from scratch, it’s important that you control access to the various data throughout your IT landscape as well. Ideally, this should be possible without maintaining user permissions in multiple software systems in parallel. The best-case scenario is one in which each user’s access is automatically inherited from the systems being accessed. A user who has no permissions to see customer data within the ERP system, for example, would likewise have no ability to extract that data within a dashboard report.

Collaboration Tools

When users see something of interest happening in the business, they will often have questions or comments to share with their colleagues. The best dashboard reporting tools allow users to share key metrics, add comments, or create slideshows to present to coworkers.

Integrated, Automated, and Purpose-Built

insightsoftware has been helping businesses of all sizes turn information into insights for over 30 years. Our products integrate with over 140 different ERP systems and other business software, enabling finance teams to develop reports and dashboards with powerful data visualizations that help drive better business decisions.

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