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Dream Dashboards

Building a digital dashboard is easy. Here's How to bolster usage and build trust.

June 21, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Managers at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts Inc. used to show up at their monthly meetings armed with several pounds of paper documents—departmental performance reports, printouts of e-mails and PowerPoint slides, and lots and lots of spreadsheets. The managers eventually agreed to lighten their load by regularly tracking a total of 45 business performance measures, which were printed out in 8-point type to fit on a single sheet of paper.

After watching the managers bounce between the two extremes, a group from IT stepped in and showed several corporate vice presidents and the chief operating officer a demo of a digital dashboard, which pulls data from multiple sources to graphically present select performance metrics on a single screen. The executives took to it almost immediately. They ultimately decided to track 10 key performance measures, which all of the health insurer's 3,500 employees can access via a Web-based dashboard that aggregates data from a central data warehouse, customer surveys and other disparate systems.

"This group all agreed they'd drive this effort right from the top. We had no problem getting people to part with paper reports. They liked the idea of using better technology," recalls Jim Humphrey, an IT director in information delivery and knowledge management at the company. "Today, they use the 10 metrics to drive the agenda of their monthly meetings."

What happened at Blue Cross is a CIO's dream of how to do dashboards right. Top executives drove the effort. They kept the dashboard simple and made it ubiquitous throughout the company. Users willingly parted with their beloved paper spreadsheets.

But beware. That isn't how it usually happens. Convincing managers and other workers accustomed to mountains of paper reports to actually use a digital dashboard is more often than not a major challenge, IT managers say. Getting them to trust the information they find there can be an even higher hurdle. IT must also continuously ensure that it's aggregating, refreshing and presenting the right data to the various user constituencies.

"It's not about access to every piece of information; it's about access to the right information," says Joseph C. Schmadel Jr., senior director of business technology at New York-based Pfizer Inc.

Here's how some smart companies addressed the thornier issues of expanding dashboard usage beyond the executive level, building trust among all users and ensuring that dashboard gauges are indeed tracking and displaying the information that users need to do their jobs and run a profitable business.

Generating Traffic

Lands' End Inc. started using dashboards in 2002, launching what it calls a "workbench" for tracking inventory. In addition to posting summary data about inventory on hand and on order from suppliers, the initial implementation of the Dodgeville, Wis.-based retailer's workbench also issued alerts about potential shortages based on trends in incoming customer orders. "We first measured the value of the workbench immediately after the 2002 holiday season," recalls CIO Frank Giannantonio. "By using the workbench, we had cut lost sales by one-third at our busiest time of the year."

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