The 2011 Sleeter Group Accounting Solutions Conference was an incredible showcase of what is to come in our profession. How to use the IPad, cloud accounting implementations with new perspectives on customer interaction, better tools for practitioner – were mixed in with the traditional staples of inventory management and Excel usage.
But one theme stood out from my perspective: Effective use of dashboards to help business principals keep an up-to-date pulse of the operations, and enable more informative decisions.
Edi Osborne, CEO of Mentor Plus gave both a keynote address, and a session that focused on business models and tools for practitioners as methods to move away from maintenance/compliant services to more proactive services – including the use of dashboards, and business metrics to help a business accurately gauge its success.
Fran Reed of Freed Up Solutions, showcased several cloud applications that use dashboards as their presentation medium. Mario Nowogrodzki, owner of Mendelson Consulting discussed dashboards in his sessions on analysis tools.
What I found most surprising, was the number of times the question was asked: “What is a dashboard”?
So, in this article (and the next), we will talk about dashboards:
- What are they?
- Are there different types of dashboards?
- What tools are available?
- How do I create a dashboard?
- How do I get the data for a dashboard?
We will also present several examples so you can take a ‘test drive’.
What is a Dashboard?
If we were to call ten IRS agents with a single question, we might get 10 different answers. This might be true of the definition of the dashboard – there are multiple definitions.
The technology definition would contain references to an easy to use graphical interface, which displays current information from multiple sources, and can be customized to meet a particular need. Additionally they can be interactive.
Before the proliferation of graphical dashboard tools, business owners might have called it their ‘daily management report’ or ‘daily summary’; in fact, the most successful clients I ever had were the ones who regularly used this ‘daily summary’ – which always fit on ONE page.
Business owners could look at a glance at their business and have an immediate pulse of their organization. They didn’t want to see all of the details, or pages of history – just a few key metrics.
What I also found intriguing in my early years, was that the metrics were NOT static. An owner might look at one set of statistics for several months, and then he might zero in on a different set later on – depending upon what he was measuring.
Yes, the basic metrics were always there, but businesses – and their strategy – change over time.
The dashboard is not analysis – as you might do with a pivot table, or OLAP database; it is not a report – although you could argue that the financial statement is a dashboard, or a job cost report for a contractor is a dashboard. It is simple way of quickly eyeballing the facts – in real time, and in an efficient manner.
Are there different types of Dashboards?
Yes. There are dashboards that display KPI’s and then there are dashboards that help you create ‘what-if’ scenarios.
This category is the traditional category of dashboards. These dashboards contain KPI (Key Performance Indicator), Business Intelligence graphical elements, or Business Analytics.
They can be cloud-based (such as Webkpi, Core Analytics, SAP Bi OnDemand), desktop-based (such as SAP® Crystal Presentation Design, SAP® Crystal Dashboard Design, Tableau), or server/enterprise-based (such as SAP® Crystal Server, Biz Tools, Microsoft®Reporting Services, QlikView).
Some will contain summary only information, some will allow you to drill down to the detail, and others have a combination of summary and detail, depending upon the level of extraction from the accounting application.
One option is even free depending up on the size of the data set you wish to use. (SAP Bi OnDemand – Personal Edition).
I almost forgot to mention the cloud based application Qvinci® which has been adopted by Intuit for their Franchise Solution Program. Its emphasis is on summary financial data for multiple companies.
‘What If’ Dashboards
These are perfect for clients who wish to see how their bottom line is affected by a certain percentage increase or decrease, or what it costs to add an employee, etc.
Historically, many of us in our profession have used complicated spreadsheets where our monthly budget formulas reference a particular cell that contains a percentage, or number of widgets. Back in the years of Lotus 1-2-3, I had accumulated so many of these spreadsheets, that I could literally plug most any company in and quickly view break even points, and a variety of ‘what-if’ scenarios.
It was a great tool. But for the clients who didn’t want to see the truth, well, business lunches were much shorter.
When we dig deeper into the ‘what-if’ scenarios in the next article, we will display objects like sliders, gauges, dials, progress bars that allow a user to change a dial, and effect all other calculations in the dashboard.
These are SO much easier to create than the old spreadsheets, and they are SO much easier for the end user to read, that it has become the modus operandi for our organization. You don’t even have to be connected to a live data source for these. I will explain later.
How do I create a Dashboard?
A typical cloud based application will have a set of pre-defined objects for you to use – with some customization options. In general you are ‘limited’ to the pre-defined objects that are presented, but you can start from a ‘blank canvas’ and decide which objects are to be used, and how the objects are to be displayed.
Desktop applications like Tableau, or SAP Crystal Interactive Design may have an ‘Excel like’ look and feel to them, while others like the SAP Dashboard Design deal completely with sliders, gauges, and ‘non-reporting’ interfaces for display.
Server applications like Crystal Server or BizTools are similar to cloud applications in their look and feel, and both will allow you to move data to Excel for further analysis.
How do I connect to the data?
Applications like WebKPI, Core Analytics and BizTools use their own proprietary data warehouses, and are generally hidden from the user. (which is usually best, and less confusing). All you have to worry about is designing your KPIs
The SAP BI OnDemand product allows you to either upload information from Excel to their cloud application (free version) , use data warehouses that are either pre-packaged (like QQube™), or built from scratch.
The desktop applications can connect to a variety of simultaneous data sources using: flat file Excel worksheets, ODBC connections (with tables and relationships), or a pre-packaged data warehouse like QQube. In addition the SAP desktop products allow you to create a dashboard, and then make it available to anyone else, without having to be connected to the original data source (e.g. for ‘what-if’ dashboards) – or you can inculcate it in a Crystal Report.
There are a variety of tools for creating dashboards, and I certainly did not catch some of the new applications that are new to this space in the last couple of years.
There is no one ‘right’ solution. In certain cases a cloud application is best, in others, it might be a server or desktop application. Pick your ‘family’ of tools, and go with it.
In my next two articles I will focus on three areas:
- What type of information is dashboard ‘material’?
- Dashboard examples and categories
- The ‘what-if’ dashboard – in depth.