Positive outlook for dashboards

Improved reporting features renew interest in use of electronic dashboards as a management tool

Much like the Defense Department, the Coast Guard oversees huge projects to build ships and airplanes and develop command-and-control systems.

Managing all those projects and a $1.2 billion acquisition budget can be a challenge, said Greg Cohen, chief of business management and metrics at the Coast Guard’s Acquisition Directorate.

As projects grow more complex and budgets tighten, computer dashboards are increasingly important for keeping tabs on the Coast Guard’s major acquisitions, Cohen said.

Dashboards consolidate and report performance metrics for programs or technology, displaying the information visually so users can grasp it at a glance.

“Dashboards are a piece of our business intelligence application,” Cohen said. “The application allows us to go out and get all the data and then integrate it into dashboards. The Web-based reports allow us to look across projects and look for trends.”

Dashboards warn Cohen and his staff about potential problems, and project managers use them to access detailed information and determine where the problems are. For example, if a project is not making use of the funds set aside for it, Coast Guard officials can look closer and possibly discover that the contractor
isn’t billing correctly — or isn’t performing the work.

The Coast Guard built its dashboards using software from SAS Institute.

The flexibility of the newest dashboards is earning them a second look from many government agencies, said Mark LaRow, vice president of products at MicroStrategy, a business intelligence software vendor.

“Dashboards have become dynamic in that they now have controls directly on the dashboards that let the [user] flip through many different views of data all on the same dashboard,” LaRow said. “In the past, dashboards may have contained the equivalent of one to three reports. Now, state-of-the-art dynamic dashboards can embody the equivalent data contained in 10 to 20 reports.” 

Increased use of animated technologies, such as Adobe Systems’ Flash, is also helping renew interest in dashboards. Modern dashboards aren’t a big departure from traditional decision-support tools, but they look and work better, said Tom Mullen, the leader of PA Consulting Group’s Federal and Defense Services practice.

“The key, of course, to real success with dashboards for acquisition and other business intelligence is to choose good measures and to be rigorous in tracking them,” Mullen said. “The reality is that even apparently objective measures have real subjectivity on large and complex DOD programs, so it is important to understand the program and priorities well enough and to do more than report the measures but actually to understand and cross-check them and to track them systematically over time.”

Another factor in dashboards’ resurgence is the standardization of business intelligence tools. Dashboards are only as good as the data they receive, and standardization leads to more data and better
information.

In addition to their colleagues at the Coast Guard, DOD officials are taking another look at dashboard technology.

“Use of dashboards is indeed in resurgence in the area of DOD program management and acquisition,” Mullen said. “Key drivers are a new round of technology and a growing desire to more rigorously evaluate project performance.”

Catching problems early
One of the biggest challenges Coast Guard officials face in operating useful dashboards is acquiring the data that goes into them. They need good, up-to-date data from project managers and other sources to ensure the dashboards are monitoring accurate information.

To achieve that goal, independent evaluators grade each Coast Guard project on a quarterly basis using metrics Cohen’s staff developed. Project managers also grade projects on a quarterly basis.

“With dashboards, we can compare project manager data against the independent graders,” Cohen said. “So if a project manager says he’s doing great in budget execution but our independent graders say he’s not, then we can go look at the real data from the dashboard. It lets us resolve problems ahead of the game rather than be reactive.”

Project managers like the system because it lets them view data on multiple projects while looking for trends. For example, they can see if only one project is having staffing problems or if there is a broader issue across multiple projects.

The technology also helps Coast Guard officials find and spend unused money. Typically, a certain amount of money is put aside for a project. In the past, if that project finished early and under budget, the extra funds would stay attached to the project for months or longer. Now, dashboards alert Coast Guard officials about unused money more quickly, Cohen said.

Monitoring IT health
Dashboards are also gaining popularity for managing complex networks and distributed computing systems.

 “Network administrators are in need of a centralized console where they can monitor at a glance, diagnose when there is a problem and respond immediately,” said Steve Goodman, chief executive officer of PacketTrap Networks.

Like the dashboards used to monitor program and operational performance, technology-monitoring systems are most effective when the metrics are selected carefully, said Carol Dekkers, president of Quality Plus Technologies, a training and consulting firm that focuses on software development and
acquisition.

“Ensure that the measures and metrics presented make sense, and provide a clear and objective gauge to answer questions that tell whether or not goals are being met,” she said. 

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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