How SMBs Use Operational and BI Dashboards

By: on December 14, 2016

Most people think of “dashboards” as the instrument panels in cars and trucks. But the word actually predates motorized vehicles.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word was first used as the name of a board that protected riders of horse drawn carriages from the dirt and mud which the horse’s hooves would otherwise “dash” upon them.

Dashboards have a different meaning in the context of business and business software. At first glance, it seems the business meaning of a dashboard stems from its comparison to the dials and gauges of instrument panels. But it could also be argued that the function of business dashboards stems more closely to the word’s original meaning.

That is, they help businesses clearly see the road ahead by preventing them from getting covered in mud that gets kicked up in the course of business.

This report discusses the role of dashboards in general, and looks at how small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are using both operational and business intelligence (BI) dashboards.

We’ll present our findings from a survey of 200 SMB owners and decision makers. We’ll also look at how BI dashboards get created and which roles oversee them.

Dashboards, Operational Dashboards and the Dashboards of BI

The Gartner IT Glossary defines dashboards as:

“A reporting mechanism [to] aggregate and display metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs), enabling them to be examined at a glance by all manner of users before further exploration via additional business analytics (BA) tools. Dashboards help improve decision making by revealing and communicating in-context insight into business performance, displaying KPIs or business metrics using intuitive visualization, including charts, dials, gauges and ‘traffic lights’ that indicate the progress of KPIs toward defined targets.”

You may be familiar with a definition along these lines. Most people have used dashboards at some point in their professional career, as they’re quite common in many industries. These are often considered “operational” dashboards, as they report on the ongoing operations of specific departments, such as engineering, marketing or customer service.

Engineering teams often use project management dashboards to track their progress on specific projects:

A project management dashboard from Mavenlink

Marketing teams use dashboards to monitor the various metrics related to marketing campaigns:

Dashboard in ConvergeHub helps marketing and sales teams monitor their wins and losses

Customer service teams use dashboards to monitor the quantity of open service tickets, their average handle time and other important stats:

A bold and easy-to-read customer service dashboard in SAP’s Cloud for Service

Importantly, most operational dashboards provide insight into the operations of an individual department. In cases where the operations of two departments are closely related—sales and marketing for example—a single dashboard can be shared.

It’s worth noting that combining dashboards in this way is only possible if the departments share a single database or have unified standards between their separate databases.

BI dashboards, however, are an entirely different breed.

BI dashboards don’t focus on any single department’s metrics. They’re specifically designed to bring together operational data from across the company and each of its departments.

Executive Dashboard in Dundas BI showing data from multiple departments

BI dashboard software has only recently been made available in packages suitable for SMBs. Previously, it was specifically designed for enterprise companies.

Nonetheless, SMBs have been dabbling with BI-esque dashboards for years. By finding clever ways to combine the information from disparate operational dashboards, across numerous department, some SMBs have found great value.

To learn more about this phenomenon, we surveyed 200 managers and owners of businesses with under US$100 million in annual revenue. (There’s no single agreed-upon definition of the size of an SMB and definitions vary between industry segments. We chose $100 million as a cutoff that works reasonably well across multiple industries.)

Who’s Using Dashboards

From our group of companies with under $100 million in annual revenue, we selected only those that reported using operational dashboards to complete the survey. This sample covered a range of industry verticals and breaks down as follows:

Representation of Industries by SMBs That Use Operational Dashboards

Next we wanted to learn which department within each company relies “most heavily” on operational dashboards.

SMB Departments That Use Operational Dashboards

By combining the information from these two charts, we get a glimpse at how departmental use of dashboards varies between industries:

Operational Dashboard Use by Department, per Industry

A few obvious correlations stand out:

  • Retail, an industry that is powered by sales, makes most frequent use of sales dashboards.
    • Engineering dashboards are used most frequently in manufacturing, an industry which is heavily reliant on engineers.
      • Customer service dashboards are used most frequently by health care companies.

      We also asked which specific company roles use dashboards most frequently. This was a free-form question, with most common responses shown in the following word cloud:

      Frequency of Words in Job Titles for Most Frequent Dashboard Users

      (Note: The larger the font, the more frequently that word appeared in the responses.)


      How SMBs Are Using Their Dashboards

      We asked respondents what tasks they most often use operational dashboards to accomplish. We provided a list of common reasons and allowed respondents to choose all that apply.

      SMB Reasons for Using Dashboards

      Topping the list, we see SMBs using dashboards for their most basic purpose: monitoring immediate performance. In this role, the dashboards are essentially presentation layers for the underlying database.

      While operational dashboards can and do help with the second and third most common reasons—planning ahead and spotting anomalies—these are the very specific use cases that BI dashboards are designed to perform.

      Improvements SMBs Want for Their Dashboards

      We’ve seen that SMBs are using their operational dashboards primarily as manual monitoring devices. In other words, they’re using them as if they’re instrument panels or mere presentation layers for their underlying data sets.

      Beyond this, they’re using them for more predictive purposes, which cross-departmental BI dashboards are expressly designed for. This could be a sign that many SMBs are outgrowing their operational dashboards.

      Diving a bit deeper, we asked these SMB users how their operational dashboards could be improved. Again, we provided a list of common improvements and let respondents select all that applied. These responses also suggest that many SMBs want dashboard functionality that’s commonly offered with BI-specific dashboard software platforms.

      SMBs Desired Improvements to Dashboards

      Most of these desired improvements would be included as features in typical BI platforms. This supports the theory that more SMBs could benefit from BI dashboard software, as many are already seeking BI-dashboard results from their traditional operational dashboards.

      Benefits of BI and Deciding When to Act

      BI dashboard software can help accomplish what many SMBs struggle to accomplish manually. Some of the benefits of BI dashboards include:

      Increased visibility of varying metrics. Interactive reports and scorecards mean users can quickly slice-and-dice data in interesting ways. Anyone with access to the dashboard software can review historical KPIs to inform future decisions.

      Customizable reports (without IT assistance). In the past, IT professionals were likely the only team members with technical capability to build new, customized analytics reports. Today, BI dashboard solutions make it easy for less technical workers to build powerful reports without outside assistance.

      Real-time access to data. Data can be integrated from a variety of sources, providing dashboard users access to key business metrics in real time. Dashboard software users only need to log in and select a few parameters to quickly obtain up-to-date analytics. And once a new dashboard is built, the report will update in real time, reducing the time spent crunching numbers and leaving more time for the analyst to identify trends.

      The BI software market has changed in recent years, shifting from a focus on large enterprise-class systems that a company’s IT department would choose, purchase and implement to smaller a la carte offerings designed for department heads. This mirrors a trend seen across the business world in which company IT departments are receiving a smaller share of the IT budget, and purchasing decisions and budgets are increasingly given to department heads.

      The bottom line for SMBs is that now is a great time to be shopping for BI dashboard software. The tools are more available and affordable and they accomplish out-of-the-box the very things many SMBs are struggling to accomplish manually.

      If your company has been pushing any of its departmental dashboards to the limits or spending too much time keeping them all in sync, then you might be ready to graduate to BI dashboard software.

      Give our advisors a call at (844) 680-2046 and they’ll clean the mud off your glasses. They’ll help you clearly see the road ahead and personalize a list of the best software options to get you there without delay.

      Are operational dashboards used in your company? Operational dashboards display key statistics about business operations within an individual department.

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