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Reports, dashboards, BI, analytics. There’s a lot of names or things getting thrown around. Yet dashboards, in particular, are something that I think is misused widely. Trying to compare what a dashboard is supposed to do to reports or even analytics and forget even all the buzzwords of business intelligence and all that kind of stuff because that’s a whole different subject. There’s a tendency to try to put everything but the kitchen sink into a dashboard.

What does the dashboard do?

I think part of that comes from if people have a reporting solution that they are offering, whether it’s for a billing module, revenue cycle management, whatever it is. You want to be able to say, “We have that,” or even “We have more than the other person.” Or if somebody asks, “Hey, can you do X, Y, or Z?” you want to be able to say, “Yes.” So there’s very frequently this sort of scope creep or long, slow, gradual throwing everything into a dashboard, which I think undermines the purpose of what it’s for.

We frequently see where individuals or even organizations want customizations or even personalizations because everybody wants something a little bit different. And suddenly, you have this giant hodgepodge rather than an effective dashboard, which takes us back to, “What is a dashboard?” and, effectively, “How is that different from reporting?”

Is the dashboard informative?

Dashboards should be a tool for information management that gives you a quick and easy way to communicate, like the dashboard of a car. It displays critical information all in one place, and it usually incorporates visualization, graphs, charts, and so on, in large part, because, again, back to that fundamental goal of rapidly communicating information, graphic visualizations are much faster for our brains to process than data dumps or things like that. 

Dashboards are not supposed to be a deep dive. Also, they’re not supposed to be detailed reports. Further, they’re not supposed to answer all questions. They’re not even supposed to be analyzed. And I think people frequently don’t even understand the words “analysis” or “to analyze” means. However, dashboards really should be just the top pieces of information that allow you to communicate quickly to sort of see, “Hey, are we going off the rails? Is the engine overheating?”, not “What’s our average miles per gallon?”

Who are the end-users? 

Users come in different types. There are executives, there are managers, there are frontline workers, and they will have different reporting needs. Not all of these people need dashboards, can utilize them effectively, or even want the same things in a dashboard.

Frontline workers, whether it’s a biller or something like that, really aren’t going to need a dashboard. They might need reports, lists of claims, lists of things they’re supposed to do or work, or something like that, but they don’t need a dashboard. They don’t need visualizations to figure out how the business will roll in part because they don’t care. But also, you want them to be focused on what they have to accomplish today. They’re not taking the long-term strategic or tactical approach. They’re looking at me like, “Hey, what do we get to knock out in the next hour? What am I working on right now before my coffee break?”

How does the dashboard help the hierarchical organization structure?

Managers do have needs that I think can be effectively met by some dashboards. For example, if we’re trying to prioritize specific departments within the organization, maybe it’s assigning natural resources. One department may be backed up. For instance, another one has excess capacity. You can easily see those types of things in a dashboard to identify, “Ah, okay, we’ve got something going on here that we might want to reassign, reallocate resources.”

Managers might also need detailed reports. They may want to analyze, whether it’s pulling it out into Excel or using some other type of tool, to make tactical decisions. But again, that isn’t dashboards. So it would help if you didn’t have something like a charge report in a dashboard, although we frequently see it.

Solve department-level issues

To solve specific problems in a business, often at a department level or an individual process or something like that for a manager, or even to prevent future issues are needs that they have. But for the most part, dashboards don’t solve problems. You’re not going to look at a dashboard and identify, diagnose from some deep dive, do some analysis, and then figure out, “Oh, here’s the problem we have to solve,” and identify the solution for that. That’s not what dashboards do.

Do the reports contain the right details?

They may also need detailed reports to be able to dive in or to be able to delegate or route those to individuals or particularly sub-departments. Stil , it’s a particular need for that middle-level manager.

I think executives tend to have a much more significant benefit in utilizing dashboards because executives are extraordinarily busy. They’re often not going to have the time to dive into and drill down at an intense level to do heavy analyses. 

They’re going to delegate things to other individuals, managers within the organization, but they still want to keep a pulse on what’s going on. So they’re having that quick access to information to see, “Hey, we’ve got these three programs going on in the organization. We’re trying to see, “Hey, overall, our denials are going up or going down. For the last three months, we’ve been working on a data loss prevention program. That’s one of our key strategic initiatives this quarter or this year,” or something like that. Is it going well? It’s just something they can check in once a month or something so that they can see, “Hey, are we making progress? Is it going better or worse?”

Are you meeting objectives?

That’s a perfect example of, “We just want to see, “Is there progress?” We set an initiative. We set some goals. Is there any movement, so I can go back to department managers or individuals and say, “Hey, I don’t see progress? I don’t see what’s happening. What’s going on? Keep me in touch?’

They still need to be well designed to be effective. For the most part, again, it’s not going to be reported. Dashboards are effective for a whole lot of executives. Graphical, not detailed reports don’t give them a list of things. That’s going to go badly. And then, in a separate one, we’ll get into some things like, “What are some of the best practices for designing dashboards?”

Final thought

Don’t confuse dashboards and reports. Don’t try to throw everything in there. Less is more. If somebody isn’t looking at the thirteenth or seventeenth report in a dashboard, it’s completely wasted. They may not get past number 9, which means number 14 was one of the three most important, and it got blown. Nobody ever looked at it. So less is more: Few critical pieces of information, graphically represented trends. It’ll be very effective.