Periodicals and Dashboards

The purpose of a dashboard is to give you a live view of what is happening with the system. Take for example the instrument it is named after – the car dashboard. It tells you at the moment what the speed of the car is, along with other indicators such as which lights are on, the engine temperature, fuel levels, etc.

Not all reports, however, need to be dashboards. Some reports can be periodicals. These periodicals don’t tell you what’s happening at a moment, but give you a view of what happened in or at the end of a certain period. Think, for example, of classic periodicals such as newspapers or magazines, in contrast to online newspapers or magazines.

Periodicals tell you the state of a system at a certain point in time, and also give information of what happened to the system in the preceding time. So the financial daily, for example, tells you what the stock market closed at the previous day, and how the market had moved in the preceding day, month, year, etc.

Doing away with metaphors, business reporting can be classified into periodicals and dashboards. And they work exactly like their metaphorical counterparts. Periodical reports are produced periodically and tell you what happened in a certain period or point of time in the past. A good example are company financials – they produce an income statement and balance sheet to respectively describe what happened in a period and at a point in time for the company.

Once a periodical is produced, it is frozen in time for posterity. Another edition will be produced at the end of the next period, but it is a new edition. It adds to the earlier periodical rather than replacing it. Periodicals thus have historical value and because they are preserved they need to be designed more carefully.

Dashboards on the other hand are fleeting, and not usually preserved for posterity. They are on the other hand overwritten. So whether all systems are up this minute doesn’t matter a minute later if you haven’t reacted to the report this minute, and thus ceases to be of importance the next minute (of course there might be some aspects that might be important at the later date, and they will be captured in the next periodical).

When we are designing business reports and other “business intelligence systems” we need to be cognisant of whether we are producing a dashboard or a periodical. The fashion nowadays is to produce everything as a dashboard, perhaps because there are popular dashboarding tools available.

However, dashboards are expensive. For one, they need a constant connection to be maintained to the “system” (database or data warehouse or data lake or whatever other storage unit in the business report sense). Also, by definition they are not stored, and if you need to store then you have to decide upon a frequency of storage which makes it a periodical anyway.

So companies can save significantly on resources (compute and storage) by switching from dashboards (which everyone seems to think in terms of) to periodicals. The key here is to get the frequency of the periodical right – too frequent and people will get bugged. Not frequent enough, and people will get bugged again due to lack of information. Given the tools and technologies at hand, we can even make reports “on demand” (for stuff not used by too many people).

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.┬áSuch 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!