Revving up!

Managers at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts 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.

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 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 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."

Giannantonio wasted no time in broadcasting that news, which prompted other business units to approach IT with ideas and requests for customized dashboards of their own. Among other things, they came up with an idea for tying together data on sales promotions and performance to measure overall business effectiveness. Today, Lands' End has five workbenches customized for different business functions.

"There was a point where we in IT were out there championing workbenches and selling people. Now, it's no longer a sell," he says. "They realize the value."

The lesson learned, Giannantonio adds: "Success breeds success."

Now, Lands' End is looking to go a step beyond providing real-time snapshots and alerts; it plans to automate the inventory management workbench to take specific actions based on various preset triggers. For example, if the workbench indicated a low inventory level on a hot-selling item, it would generate an order for that item, which would then need only to be authorized by an inventory planner.

"The key ingredient (for increasing usage) is that this isn't just an online reporting tool anymore. It becomes a proactive workbench that provides information on which action can be taken," Giannantonio says.

Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston has adopted a set of business performance metrics that are displayed on a Web-based dashboard that 760 users can access. Constant references to dashboard information in memos, reports and performance evaluations proved to be a guaranteed way to increase usage, says CIO Sue Schade.

"There are constant verbal reminders of the data, in management meetings and in memos," Schade says. "The president also refers to it continuously, so if you're not looking at it, he's going to ask why not. That in itself motivates people."

Building trust is another challenge. "If you're providing just one number to people, they have a tendency to not believe that number. So you also have to provide detail," says Mike McGilloway, project manager of business intelligence at Philadelphia-based Pep Boys, a $2.1 billion automotive parts and service chain with 595 stores. "Even if we provide a good number, people want to understand why that number is what it is." The ability to drill down deeper into data is a must, he says.

Blue Cross equips its dashboard with hot links to additional explanatory information about figures contained in the snapshots, says Humphrey.

At Brigham and Women's, 29 unique data sources feed into the hospital's single dashboard to present scorecard information. "And with anything you look at, you can click through to find out who the source is and who to talk to if you have a question about what you see there," says Schade. "If someone suspects data is not accurate and wants to dispute it, they can click through and go right to the source."

Walt St. John, manager of business information in the aftermarket division of Alstom Power, says building trust has been especially difficult with users in sales. "A lot of these people have historically been using their gut to determine who their best customers are and what their strongest products are. And the dashboard tells them differently," he says.

That's why data accuracy is especially critical, St. John says. "One of my main responsibilities is to do data verification before I publish anything and make sure everything on the dashboard and in the background is correct," he says. Still, he adds, "we get a lot of challenges, so then we start drilling down, and nine times out of 10 we find the data is right."

Ensuring Accuracy

Delivering the right information to run the business first and foremost requires that the right people outside of IT select and set key performance indicators, which are the very heart of any dashboard.

At Maine Medical Center in Portland, George Higgins, vice president for quality and performance improvement, gathered 60 to 80 leaders from all departments at a two-day retreat. Together they hammered out 50 performance measures, which are now tracked electronically, updated automatically and presented in a dashboard that's accessible to users via the Web.

Lands' End gathered key leaders from different departments for an idea-generating session in which a technique called "mind-mapping" was used, says Giannantonio. "People brought their free thoughts to the table, and as we discussed things, they developed schematics and graphics of Lands' End and how information is used by different groups. That got people to see synergies and to think about strategy for where we should build workbenches," he says.

Once key performance measures are established, the most important thing for IT is to realize that they will almost certainly change, and so will the dashboards.

"We're continually getting feedback from our users about what's good and what's bad about it, so we're continually trying to make the dashboard more user-friendly," says St. John. "It's a process, not a destination."

Custom Models

In 2003, Boston-based AMR Research surveyed 135 companies and found that more than half were using dashboards in a variety of departments, including customer service, supply chain management, human resources and manufacturing operations.

Analysts at Nucleus Research note that role-based dashboards customized to the needs of users in a department, such as those in use at Lands' End, are often associated with faster adoption rates and higher usage rates than one-size-fits-all models.

Under the Hood

What they are: Electronic, often real-time snapshots of key performance measures that indicate the overall financial and/or operational health of the business or department.

What they do: Pull data from multiple sources to graphically present key measures on a single screen.

Value they add: Provide departmental users with a holistic view of enterprise performance as well as information on how and where they fit in; provide alerts about potential problems before they occur.

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