The Real Promise of Performance Dashboards

Much of today’s hype about performance dashboards – a new book seems to coming out every few days -- misses an important point. Stephen Few, in his book, Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data (O’Reilly, 2006), for example, writes that dashboards have emerged in response to the “tsunami of data that rolls over and flattens us in its wake.”

To be sure, performance dashboards help those who are drowning in data -- the executive, manager or analyst who is overwhelmed with too much data. A well-designed performance dashboard lets her view performance measures at a glance, and then move easily through successive levels of strategic, tactical and operational performance information to get the insight she needs to solve problems and to improve program and services.

The focus is on those who already have access to performance data – albeit in a form that prohibits or at least discourages its use. But what about the people who do not yet have any access to reliable performance information?

In a typical court today that may include everyone except the court administrator and the analyst who routinely sends monthly case processing data to the state administrative office of the courts. Sure, monthly reports may be distributed, but who reads them? Who understands them? An undecipherable monthly report of clearance rates and time-to-disposition data does not constitute a tsunami of information that flattens us in its wake.

I see the really big promise of performance dashboards in their ability to communicate critical performance information quickly, concisely, and widely to people who otherwise would not be privy to that information -- in any form. This is the big promise of the Internet, information technology, and business intelligence (BI) as distribution channels. It is part of the movement from a primarily vertical (command and control) to a horizontal (access, connect and collaborate) solution model. It is the “small shall become big” vision of Thomas L. Friedman’s international bestseller, The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). It is the future that Peter Drucker sees in his book Managing in the Next Society (St. Martin’s Press, 2002) where knowledge is spread instantaneously accessible to everyone.

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