Datapukes and Dashboards

Avinash Kaushik has put out an excellent, if long, blog post on building dashboards. A key point he makes is about the difference between dashboards and what he calls “datapukes” (while the name is quite self-explanatory and graphic, it basically refers to a report with a lot of data and little insight). He goes on in the blog post to explain how dashboards need to be tailored for recipients at different levels in the organisation, and the common mistakes people make about building a one-size fits all dashboard (most likely to be a dashboard).

Kaushik explains that the higher up you go in an organisation’s hierarchy, the lesser access to data the managers have and they also have lesser time to look into and digest data before they come to a decision – they want the first level of interpretation to have been done for them so that they can proceed to the action. In this context, Kaushik explains that dashboards for top management should be “action-oriented” in that they clearly show the way forward. Such dashboards need to be annotated, he says, with reasoning provided as to why the numbers are in a certain way, and what the company needs to do to take care of it.

Going by Kaushik’s blog post, a dashboard is something that definitely requires human input – it requires an intelligent human to look at and analyse the data, analyse the reasons behind why the data looks a particular way, and then intelligently try and figure out how the top management is likely to use this data, and thus prepare a dashboard.

Now, notice how this requirement of an intelligent human in preparing each dashboard conflicts with the dashboard solutions that a lot of so-called analytics or BI (for Business Intelligence) companies offer – which are basically automated reports with multiple tabs which the manager has to navigate in order to find useful information – in other words, they are datapukes!

Let us take a small digression – when you are at a business lunch, what kind of lunch do you prefer? Given three choices – a la carte, buffet and set menu, which one would you prefer? Assuming the kind of food across the three is broadly the same, there is reason to prefer a set menu over the other two options – at a business lunch you want to maximise the time you spend talking and doing business. Given that the lunch is incidental, it is best if you don’t waste any time or energy getting it (or ordering it)!

It is a similar case with dashboards for top management. While a datapuke might give a much broader insight, and give the manager opportunity to drill down, such luxuries are usually not necessary for a time-starved CXO – all he wants are the distilled insights with a view towards what needs to be done. It is very unlikely that such a person will have the time or inclination to drill down -which can anyway be made possible via an attached data puke.

It will be interesting what will happen to the BI and dashboarding industry once more companies figure out that what they want are insightful dashboards and not mere data pukes. With the requirement of an intelligent human to make these “real” dashboards (he is essentially a business analyst), will these BI companies respond by putting dedicated analysts for each of their clients? Or will we see a new layer of service providers (who might call themselves “management consultants”) who take in the datapukes and use their human intelligence to provide proper dashboards? Or will we find artificial intelligence building the dashboards?

It will be very interesting to watch this space!