Tools for data-driven management

Execs count on dashboards to make better decisions, faster

James Taylor, the Commerce Department’s deputy chief financial officer, didn’t know his boss was unhappy until he read it in a magazine article.

Then-deputy secretary Sam Bodman, a veteran executive of several large corporations, bemoaned the lack of financial tools at his government post.

“He was quoted as saying he had never before worked in a place where he could not get monthly financial information,” Taylor said. “We call that an incentive where I come from.”

Taylor’s team turned to a tool called an executive dashboard, now being used by a growing number of agencies. The dashboard in effect opened a window into various financial systems so that Bodman and other executives could quickly see the department’s financial status, bureau by bureau. Commerce chose a dashboard from SAS Institute Inc. of Cary, N.C., one of several dashboard vendors.

A dashboard isn’t limited to financial data but can track any metric related to departmental performance.

“Dashboards help you manage performance by seeing common metrics,” said Gabrielle Boko, marketing vice president for Lanner Group Inc. of Houston, another dashboard vendor.

Although some dashboards can drill down to detailed data, their chief value is in visual summaries—pie charts, bar graphs or traffic lights—understandable at a glance.

Pretty face

But some executive dashboards are little more than eye candy, said Frank Buytendijk, research vice president for business intelligence and corporate performance management at IT research firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

If managers can’t act on the visual information, the software ultimately is of little value, Buytendijk said.

Wise government users design their executive dashboards to pinpoint bottlenecks and potential trouble spots, he said.

The issue for Commerce was noninteroperable systems. Even after financial reporting was consolidated under the Commerce Administrative Management System, officials still could not quickly produce a set of departmentwide numbers because bureaus were using five versions of the finance system. Three bureaus still ran their own independent finance systems with functions not offered by CAMS.

“We had these multiple systems, and all they were doing was providing data. What we really needed was information,” Taylor said.

The bureaus all filed paper reports, which were soon out of date. The consolidated report then needed approval by multiple persons, which took more time.

Taylor wanted to combine all the raw data under one top-level interface.

In 2002, he approached SAS to set up a separate reporting system—the executive dashboard—to aggregate the bureau data. The resulting Consolidated Reporting System, which went live last fall, shows at a glance the status of each bureau’s spending versus its budget.

Commerce executives can design their own charts or reports, or click on a bureau for details about what is happening there.

The dashboard, which cost about $300,000, uses the SAS public-sector portal plus a set of proprietary query and reporting tools running under Microsoft Windows 2000 Server. Each bureau forwards its financial data to a data warehouse, now about 40G.

Defense agencies are also big users of executive dashboards. For example, the Naval Air Systems Command measures readiness with a dashboard from Cognos Corp. of Burlington, Mass.

An Air Force data warehouse, known as the Knowledge Management System, uses a dashboard from Business Objects Inc. of San Jose, Calif., to gauge aircraft readiness based on data from 12 logistics systems run by suppliers and the service itself.

Army recruiters use the Performance Suite from Hyperion Solutions Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif., to meet recruitment goals.

On the civilian side, the Environmental Protection Agency uses Business Objects’ dashboard to keep tabs on finances, payroll, contracts and grants status. Treasury’s Office of Workforce Technology developed a dashboard to watch the progress of its enterprise human resources system, HR Connect.

The Coast Guard also uses the Cognos software to gauge unit status, based on metrics for personnel, training, equipment readiness and available supplies.

Newer dashboards are generally simpler to implement and maintain, Buytendijk said.

Microsoft Corp. is attempting to simplify the process of building a personal dashboard to a few mouse clicks—at least for the executives themselves. Setting up the initial dashboard functionality within Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Server takes an administrator “a couple of days,” said Philo Janus, a Microsoft developer evangelist.

He said the Microsoft dashboard can be cobbled together from components that Microsoft calls Web parts. The Web parts provide services such as news feeds or phone directory front ends. They act as intermediaries between the dashboard and some data source.

Aside from easier construction, “We know a lot more now about how to define the right metrics for top management,” Buytendijk said, citing methodologies such as balanced scorecard, Six Sigma and economic value analysis.

The Commerce dashboard, for example, quantifies many requirements of the President’s Management Agenda, Taylor said.

The joint Military Entrance Processing Command is developing a set of performance indicators it wants to apply at 65 entrance stations for Army basic training and recruiting. The command is evaluating Cognos’ executive dashboard to “help us ask smarter questions sooner about causes and effects,” senior analyst Rick Cox said.

For example, the dashboard might aid in cutting the number of visits a potential recruit makes for aptitude tests, medical exams, security screening and job placement.

The current average is three visits per recruit, and the command wants to reduce that to two with better screening and electronic processes instead of paper. The dashboard will show each office’s commander whether the average is dropping.

About the Author

Connect with the GCN staff on Twitter @GCNtech.


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