Data visualization software can help you make smart decisions in seconds instead of hours.
It’s been said that data is not information; information is not knowledge; and knowledge is not action. But, today, taking action that doesn’t start with data, or with data that isn’t transformed into knowledge, is a short route to losing money.
And so data is all-important to a successful business today. However, this revelation is still relatively new – it was shortly after the turn of the new millennium that the business world began to realize that it needed data, and a lot of it. So businesses began to collect it. Data was squeezed out of all kinds of nooks and crannies, and before they knew it, they had mountains of it.
Figurative mountains, that is, and these mountains took the form of endless electronic spreadsheets with countless cryptic numbers. It became clear that just having data didn’t guarantee that you’d have knowledge. Data must be interpreted. It has to mean something to the people who use it to make decisions.
“Businesses need a tool to take that data and turn it into information,” Thomas Butler, cloud account manager at data visualization software company iDashboards, says. “Computers are good at data, but humans are good at information. We need to visualize information. We’re not meant to look at a thousand rows of numbers and try and make heads or tails of that.
Butler says that businesses need something that will quickly enable them to discern their situation, just by looking at their computer. How many orders do we have? How many have shipped? Are there any behind schedule?
“Businesses need to be able to see that kind of information ‘right now,’ so they can use it to act and make decisions. That can dramatically affect the bottom line.”
That’s what the business intelligence software called dashboards are all about, he says. Visualizing data and making it “actionable.”
“A business dashboard is like the dashboard in your car,” Butler explains. “Your vehicle’s dashboard allows you to gain at-a-glance, real-time insights as you drive down the road – allowing you to effectively and efficiently operate that vehicle – and a business dashboard is meant to do the same thing. It allows you to effectively and efficiently operate your business based on the metrics that your organization has decided are important to its operations, by displaying them in an at-a-glance, real-time fashion.”
Dashboards give you at-a-glance, real-time insights into your data, based on the metrics that you’ve decided are important to track.
Dashboards are able to accomplish this because they’re a data visualization tool. Any information that you deem important to the success of your business can be taken and displayed in a variety of different ways: graphs, charts and other various graphics. This can be done on your computer or on your iPad or Android tablet on the go.
“Dashboards tie into your existing sources of data, and display all those sources side-by-side,” says Butler. “Those sources could be an ERP, an accounting system, production, metrics that you have or just data that you’re housing in Excel spreadsheets. Each of those components, incidentally, tell only part of your business story. Only by seeing those side-by-side in a central hub are you able to make decisions on those numbers in an efficient manner.
“I might be able to put my labor and payroll numbers together side-by-side, but that only tells me part of the story. If I looked at just my labor and payroll, I see that, wow, I had so many people on the clock for that day, why is that? But if I include more sources of data, then I can see that I also had high production, because I had a high amount of orders to take care of that day. I wouldn’t have made that connection, unless I had all those pieces of information together.”
According to Butler, a good dashboard is a tool that allows a business user to not have to spend hours sorting through a number of disparate reports from different sources, trying to decipher them. Instead, it retains the same content that you’ve always had, but now organizes it into one location, and in a more intuitive visual format.
But how does the data from those reports find its way into the dashboard?
Butler explains that if a company is working with Excel spreadsheets, the sync can be performed in two ways. The first is through a manual upload option that he likens to attaching a file to an email. The second method is automated and uses the company’s iDashboards Auto Uploader, which is a program that will grab updated data from your Excel file at regular specified intervals and then upload it to your dashboard.
If you’re not using Excel, your dashboards can be directly connected to any relational database, he says. This ensures that each time you open your dashboards, information backed by your most recent data is displayed.
“A dashboard is a data visualization tool,” Butler reiterates. “It’s only as good as the data that it’s pulling from. We’re data agnostic – we’re going to display the data that’s in that database or the data source, but only what’s there.”
Once you have your data plugged in, the dashboards themselves are very customizable.
“Our dashboards have a non-programming interface,” Butler explains. “That means, if you know how to use Microsoft Excel, you can use our dashboarding tool, because it’s easier than Excel.”
Dashboards can be displayed on your computer, your iPad or your Android tablet.
To make things even easier, Butler’s company provides training when helping a new customer implement dashboards into their business.
“For our typical roll-out, we’ll send a consultant on site,” he says. “The major emphasis of this engagement is to sit with our client and help them with their initial planning phases and dashboard development. The consultant will sit with them, walk them through the product and train them in it. It’s usually a five-day engagement, and it usually results in the customer’s first suite of dashboards being completed during that time. At the end of the engagement, they’re a dashboard expert.”
If a company is on the fence about implementing dashboards, and perhaps wondering what or if they’d have anything to track, Butler says that even the exploratory phase can be useful.
“One of my colleagues was working with a client, helping them to build out some sample dashboards,” he relates. “Even though they were just doing an exploration, and they identified a trend in their data that was pretty shocking, and it led that client to perform some pretty immediate action.”
Another one of iDashboards’ customers was able to eliminate production waste through the use of dashboards.
“This client started tracking production waste in their dashboards. Through the dashboards, waste became public information company-wide. This spurred creativity among the employees,” says Butler. “And they ended up saving $1 million in the first year and transformed that waste into another product that they’re now selling for additional profit.”
In a similar way, Butler relates that, for small manufacturers, it’s helpful to display dashboards on the shop floor using a screen.
“Imagine what would happen if every employee knew exactly what the waste was for the shop this month compared to what it was last month? This week compared to what it was last week?” he says. “If you want to keep waste at a certain standard, you can throw up a chart on your dashboards that shows your goal for waste. And if it starts going above that, people are going to notice – the information is right there on your shop floor. That’s going to have that drastic effect.
For a small manufacturer to start using dashboards, Butler recommends using his company’s cloud product, which is designed to be affordable for small businesses.
“At the moment our cloud product starts at an up-front cost of $1,995,” he says. “Going forward from there, it’s $59 per user, per month. That pricing is tiered, so once they hit ten users, it drops to $50, and so on.
“This is what I say to my clients when I’m working with them: ‘Look at the numbers that were given to you here, and then look at the employees to whom you’re going to give a dashboard. Ask yourself, if I give them a dashboard, will they generate me $2 per day in new revenue, or cut my costs by $2 per day? If they will generate that $2, they need a dashboard. It’s not just a good idea. They need a dashboard.’
“And if they can do $2, what’s to say they can’t do $3, $4; $5, and so on? That adds up quickly and more than pays for the visualization tool.”
Editor’s Note: For interactive samples of dashboards, click here. To learn more, contact Thomas Butler at 248-528-7203 or at firstname.lastname@example.org