Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dashboards - Huge Value or Big Expense?

I’m hearing more and more “dashboard bashing” these days. Seems that many have tried to implement them, and then drawn the conclusion that the view isn’t worth the climb. I’ve even been inside companies where you cannot even say “dashboard” in front of senior executives for fear of them throwing you out of the room. Likewise, I’ve been inside companies and heard things like “Dashboards are easy. We have hundreds of them.”

Having “written the book” on marketing dashboards several years ago, I think I own part of this problem. And I confess that there are far fewer comprehensive dashboards in use within Global 1000 marketing organizations than I thought there would be by now. In short, it seems it was a good idea in concept, but it just hasn’t “stuck” within most companies. Why?

Well for starters, dashboard design and implementation tends to get delegated down the hierarchy and get treated like campaign management or marketing automation tools. It’s a bit paradoxical, but if a CMO wants an insight-generating dashboard that saves them time, they need to put more time into nurturing its birth and evolution. EVERY successful dashboard implementation I’ve seen (and yes there are a few) shares a common foundation of senior management attention and high expectations. Without that, they are born of a thousand compromises and arrive neutered of their value.

Second, they are set up to fail by unrealistic expectations with regard to resources required. Sure the software to run dashboards is getting much cheaper all the time, but the effort to gather, align, and interpret data is significant. Not to mention the time required to train the staff how to USE the dashboard to THINK differently about the business than they did before. After all, if your dashboard doesn’t offer the prospect of causing people to think differently, why do it when you can just continue to rely on the existing mélange of reports flying around the building?

Third, there is pressure to execute in Excel in the belief that it will be easier and less expensive. In reality, the limitations it imposes undermine the potential to grab people’s imagination and draw them into interacting with data in new ways. The users can’t sense anything different from the reports they currently get. In short, penny wise and pound foolish.

And finally, start with metrics which CAN be measured today (the pragmatist approach) instead of envisioning the spectrum of things which SHOULD be measured (the visionary approach), and force some amount of new learning exploration right from the start. Without this stretch exercise, many dashboards are started with no prospect of new information, and therefore no compelling reason for anyone to take the time to learn to use them.

So to sum up what we’ve learned, I’d say if you're looking for great insight without expense, stay away from dashboards. You'll be disappointed. But don't burn your bridges behind you. After you've searched far and wide for true insight-generating solutions that meet the "good" and "cheap" criteria, you may just arrive back at the reality that insight is derived through dedicated effort over time. And while the current generation of dashboard software options is slick and inexpensive, they won’t perform the most important transformations for you – the process, skill, and culture ones.

Pat LaPointe is Managing Partner at MarketingNPV – specialty advisors on measuring and improving the payback on marketing investments, and publishers of MarketingNPV Journal available online free at www.MarketingNPV.com.

1 comment:

Nan Dawkins said...

While there seems to be a growing mandate from the C-Suite to analyze (prove the ROI, show me the business value, etc.), the reality is that this mandate hasn't been operationalized into job descriptions. Until organizations have seriously addressed what is necessary to make data-based analysis a reality (i.e., the skills, formalized roles and processes and especially, time allocation), the unrealistic expectations, misunderstanding and misuse of dashboards will continue.

Since my company is in the process of releasing a social media measurement dashboard product (Social Snap), this is an issue I think about quite often. We are doing three things as a result:

1.) Continuously working on ways to display/present data that provides some context, as well as combining metrics with specific actionable recommendations (to make the leap easier). This obviously helps, but will not completely solve the problem.

2.) Providing outsourced analyst services in combination with the tool.

3.) Encouraging clients to start with a smaller group of data points and expand out over time (the tool is flexible enough to allow this). I agree with you that the "stretch excercise" is a great way to make the lightbulbs go on.

I hope your post stimulates an active conversation on this topic. I would love to hear how others are tackling these issues in their organizations. Agencies, clients and tool vendors are all feeling the sting from this in one way or another.