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Create a digital dashboard to share management information: decision aid tools can help bring faltering projects back on the road to success.

A digital dashboard is a software tool that presents summarized management information in easy-to-understand visual displays based on key performance indicators. Simple automotive-type "gauges" and "stoplight" colors are often used to distill complex data into meaningful and actionable information. Typically, users can "drill-down" to detailed information by clicking on the gauges to access graphs and tables.

A digital dashboard is used at Surface Combat Systems Center (SCSC), Wallops Island, Va., by senior leadership, managers, staff and key customers. Sharing the same (nonsensitive) information across the command ensures reliability and consistency in making decisions, preparing briefings and responding rapidly to data calls.

This article focuses on the practical approach used by SCSC for creating a digital dashboard which may be helpful to your organization in designing this management decision aid.

First, you need to determine what information senior leaders, managers and staff require. Don't underestimate the importance of this question or your dashboard project may start off in the wrong direction. At this stage, it is best to forget about automation and shiny bells and whistles, and instead, focus on the information that is important to the success of your organization.

For example, SCSC performs vital work focused on: Program Executive Office Integrated Warfare Systems program development, life cycle engineering, fleet operator and combat information center team training, and in-service engineering. So statistical data displaying projects regarding this work are provided in the SCSC digital dashboard.

At SCSC, we started with the reports that management already received. Monthly customer support metrics, combat system readiness metrics, system usage and forecasts hours, facility electrical usage, and department financial information were initially placed on the dashboard.


For example, the dashboard has an electrical usage Web page, which shows the command's five-year progress toward meeting Navy energy reduction goals.

Next, determine how to distill data into summary information. Decide how your data can be aggregated and calculations performed which will result in meaningful and actionable metrics.

These metrics should not just quantify organizational outputs, but should characterize how efficiently and effectively your organization is operating to provide products or services to your customers. If your organization does not have results-oriented metrics, you need to work on how to realistically and accurately measure organizational performance before you can decide how you will display this information on a dashboard.

A successful long-term dashboard project is dependent on the quality and availability of data. The most important metrics are useless if the data used to calculate them are inaccurate or outdated.

Once you have determined the information that is important and a way to measure performance, the next step is to select a software package. SCSC conducted a market survey to find a Web-based software package that automates data collection and distribution.

A weighted multi-criteria decision matrix was used to evaluate criteria important to SCSC to investigate a dozen dashboard software packages.

The criteria used were: must be Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) approved, cost-effective, can support a variety of data sources, drill-down capability, graphics capability, ease of design and flexibility, robust reports generation and a multiple dashboards capability.

The vendors of the top candidates were invited for an on-site demonstration. SCSC finally selected Visual Mining's NetCharts Reporting Suite approved for use on the NMCI by the Department of the Navy Application and Database Management System (DADMS) identification numbers 43337, 43338 and 43339. Cognos PowerPlay (DADMS No. 24955) also scored high but was considered more suitable for larger organizations.

Once you have established metrics and selected the dashboard software, it is finally time to design the dashboard. The software SCSC selected included a designer tool for rapid project development.

This tool acts like a wizard, leading the user through sequential steps, thus reducing code writing and directing the design process so the dashboard Web pages can be produced quickly.

Each dashboard starts with a project folder. Next, the data set is created, the information source for graphs and tables. Establishing a connection to a database or other source for a data set is made using an Open Database Connectivity (ODBC), Java Database Connectivity (JDBC), XML or even comma separated values (CSV) file connection.

Structured Query Language (SQL) is used to select the fields and criteria. Microsoft Excel is a good data source for small data sets, but relational databases, like Microsoft Access or Oracle, are better if you have a large volume of data.

Another important feature of the data set is the ability to use variable substitution in the SQL statement. This allows the user to enter display criteria and interact with the dashboard and not just view static information.

Once you have a data set, you can create graphs or tables to display the information on the dashboard. Selection of the type of graph or chart is important because this is the way you communicate complex information so that it can be understood quickly.

For example, Figure 1 shows a typical dashboard gauge used to display monthly SCSC combat system facility event dependability. The stoplight color segments on the dial represent management success goals. In this case, two standard deviations are used as the boundary between green and yellow, and three standard deviations are used for the yellow to red boundary.

The drill down feature to see the values on a graph, or to select an attribute to show the information from another viewpoint, is an important function. The designer needs to balance the value of the information with the level of effort to maintain the different drill levels.

We learned that when displaying financial and technical information, to provide a drill down to the actual numbers in a table and to listen closely to managers' questions so access could be tailored to the need for specific information.

The last step in your project is to create the Web pages for the dashboard. There should be consistency throughout the Web pages in the method of navigation, page layout, colors and font selections.

You can use samples from the dashboard software, or browse the Internet for examples of dashboard formats that you like. Think about the features that are appealing on the examples you find and how you could use them to display your information.

Don't forget maintenance and training when developing your dashboard project plan. Ideally, your dashboard will have a live data source connection, but if it uses static information, you need to plan who will be responsible for updating the data and how often.

Some training may be necessary to familiarize users in the mechanics of how to access, navigate and enter display criteria in the dashboard. More importantly, managers and staff need to understand how they can use the metrics on the dashboard.

The significance of this is demonstrated by SCSC's maturation in the Malcolm Baldrige Command Inspection criteria. In 2002, the focus was on what are your metrics, but by 2006 the emphasis became how do you use metrics?

A dashboard is an excellent way to share key performance indicators with managers and other stakeholders. A successful dashboard project should focus on the information needed, what metrics will provide that information and leadership buy-in.

Only then should the development team think about software selection and dashboard design. The development team also needs to consider dashboard maintenance and training.

Steve Krumm is the Surface Combat Systems Center Combat Systems Technology division head.

Ms. Mary Hoffken is a senior systems analyst with Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Services and the developer of the SCSC dashboard project.

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Author:Hoffken, Mary; Krumm, Steven
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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