The Big Bang or The Big Win?

Hi, I’m Brad Hines. I’m a technical services team member at iDashboards. I help clients with implementation and development of Business Intelligence projects by using the iDashboards software. I love what I do and do what I love.

I’ve learned a great deal this past year about implementing Business Intelligence projects. To round out the iDashboards blog for 2013, I’ve decided to share some of the best ‘lessons learned’ while on the road and share some of the experiences I’ve had. Some of the most rewarding, and the most painful lessons, are hard fought and will help with any organization that endeavors to improve its processes and transform its effectiveness in the marketplace.

I hope you will find these as insightful and humorous as I did. Let’s dashboard!

1) Don’t be afraid to start
So many organizations are worried about what their projects will yield or look like that they often agonize and never get started. Champions leave, organizational priorities change, and organizational changes can often make developed dashboards irrelevant. Change happens, and often quickly. I find a far more effective approach with BI design is realizing that dashboard designing is by nature iterative, never ending, and organic. Your designs will change constantly. It’s much more effective to design and get it close to right and correct than it is to never get started. Just know that this will be an ongoing challenge and there will always be a need to develop and change content. This often stems from finding patterns from the first-go round and asking new and better questions over time. To quote Yoda, “Let the dashboard flow within you. With each dashboard you become stronger. Use the Dashboard, and trust in the Dashboard Brad.” …Did I get that quote right?

2) Nobody ever gets it right on the first try – this is iterative
Folks whom are not involved with the dashboard process will change their minds or not articulate what they really need to make decisions. Someone isn’t going to be happy with a design choice. Someone will still mention a significant factor that wasn’t considered when a dashboard was built. It happens, and not only is it OK, it’s expected and welcomed! Build dashboards with designs that are repeatable and allow enough design room for changes. We also built the software to be flexible enough to quickly re-create concepts into completed dashboards. It’s OK if things change, your dashboards can adapt.

3) Recycle and re-purpose with Pride
I find that after I design a chart I am often repeating the same chart designs over and over again. I’m a huge advocate for re-purposing the charts I create and transforming them into new concepts. Steal with pride! Why spend all the extra time involved with re-creating designs when you could re-purpose a chart and spend less time working on design?

4) Create a template gallery
I save a lot of time by creating default templates for my development teams. So, when a new dashboard concept is developed I create a generic chart with design choices, and a generic dashboard layout. Then, when I create additional charts I just re-cycle the template charts and dashboards. This saves me hours of development work and repeating what is previously created.

5) Choose dashboard building efforts based on value-added to the organization and the available skill set
Rather than focusing on an initial dashboard that adds a ton of value but is challenging to create, instead when you are first developing focus on the easiest dashboards to create first. The lessons learned about how team members interact and the capabilities of the organization will become apparent. I like to work on easier dashboards, then circle back to more complex and more value-added dashboards. I always end up saving time in the long run by tackling the easiest first and developing skill sets when training. My students then become confident dashboard sharks eager for their next organizational challenge.

6) Everyone’s data needs work. It’s OK …. Start with building the dashboards first, then provide the real data sets
iDashboards training is aimed at having an even split of users in the room: Users with data skills in Excel and/or database(s), and decision makers interested in making decisions. The synergy of iDashboards is that folks typically not involved in a software development lifecycle can create their own dashboards. By having decision makers use Excel to mock up a data set, when real data is available a user can easily change the source of data from an excel mockup to the real data. Thus, if we have a completed dashboard, and therefore a specific set of data requirements in place from a dashboard, data professionals can have a clear target that doesn’t change to hit. This also gives the data pro the freedom to decide if they want to hit an Excel spreadsheet, a view, a stored procedure, a de-normalized pre-aggregate batch table, data warehouse or everyday transactional table to display data. This leads to rapid churn time and many fewer revisions over time. It also means more people can contribute to the construction effort.

7) This is supposed to be fun
I have a blast coming in and working with folks every day. I love to see how iDashboards creates organizational value and leads to positive change. Make it fun and people will participate. The end goal is to make a fun product that makes life easier, returns millions of dollars in value to an organization, and helps people focus on adding value instead of being stuck in Excel purgatory. If the dashboards aren’t doing that, it’s because of one of three reasons: The organizational politics, the skills, or the dashboards aren’t answering the key questions users need to answer. Create a process for users to challenge data in the dashboard and provide an avenue for people to participate and the project will flourish.


8) The folks at iDashboards really do care.
I see it in every interaction. From sales engineers on the road, our tech support team, our sales people and our leadership, we want you to succeed. If we can do anything to help, realize that every project is different and we want to help you succeed. Some organizations need a bit more time to work on concepts. Others want to develop their data proficiency to add value. If your organization doesn’t have these things, it’s OK to lean on us and develop an action plan. We succeed because we care, and we care that everyone succeeds. We look forward to your comments and success in the coming New Year. Happy 2014 to your organizations and families.

Brad Hines – Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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The Product is the Process

A note to the Senior Executives – your “product” is the delivery of information and needs to be updated.

In a recent US Today article entitled “How CEOs are Nearly Illiterate about Technology”, Michael Wolff noted that politicians talking about the introduction of the web site stated the “product” was good, just the “process” was troubled. Wolff noted that for most people “the process is the product.” On a more general note he later wrote “there are few CEOs who can get their heads around the notion that their main value added and distinguishing products are not the cars they manufacture, or credit they supply, or hotel rooms they offer, or merchandise they stock, but the process by which consumers interact with what is being sold.

If you’re a Senior Manager, isn’t part of your “product” the ability to communicate relevant information that improves performance, creates positive change, or helps increase profitability?  If so, are you still reporting results to your stakeholders, employees, or customers the same way results were reported back in the early 1990’s when Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States?  In other words, are you still using Excel as your reporting tool?

As we approach 2014 we need to realize that “the process is the product” and if the numbers are difficult to understand, or if those receiving your reports can’t see the story behind the numbers because the story is hidden in rows and columns, you need a better process.

Dashboards provide visibility. Visibility creates accountability, and accountability creates positive change. Recently a manufacturer put together a dashboard based on Excel data they had looked at every week and noticed a trend that maybe should have been obvious to them but wasn’t until they saw the numbers in a picture. By making minor scheduling changes they almost completely stopped the need for overnight shipping and are now saving $10,000 a week in shipping costs.  After updating their “process” their employees were able to make immediate changes, and they added $500,000/year to the bottom line.  Take the rows and columns of data in your current Excel files and turn them into insight that will have a positive impact on your business.  Isn’t it time you improved your process?

Tim Barr – Director, Cloud Sales, iDashboards

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What is the Purpose of a Dashboard?

What is the purpose of a Dashboard?

As an iDashboards Technical Consultant, to start off my training when I visit onsite I ask the question, “What is the purpose of a dashboard?”  There is typically a 10 second pause while everyone thinks.  Common answers are, “To see information” or, “To do what the boss asks.” One person even said, “To make pretty charts.”

Before you read on, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of one of my dashboards?”

I believe the purpose of a dashboard is to, “Visualize data to make an informed decision.”

A Dashboard is comprised of charts.  A good chart turns data into information by visualizing trends, displaying outliers and using color to highlight data above or below a given target.  iDashboards correlates data in charts to provide even better information.  When the dashboard audience (manager, Director, VP) connects the information, watch for that “A-ha” moment.  Listen for the phrase, “That’s cool!” Or if the audience is from a younger generation you might hear, “Wicked!”

That moment is a powerful insight.  One customer used an iDashboards chart to track late shipments by day of the week.  The chart showed that beginning on Wednesday, late shipments increased significantly. This customer got excited about this powerful insight and took the next natural step: make a decision. The customer increased manufacturing on Tuesdays to increase inventory.  Thus, they saved $10,000/week in expedited shipping costs.

Isn’t that cool?  That makes my day because the chart’s purpose resulted in a positive impact.

So, before you build your next dashboard, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Why should the audience care?
  • What message will the dashboard deliver?

When you have the answers (and the data!), your dashboard will create powerful insights.

Paul Ligeski – Sr. Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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Don’t Sweat the Data Side

iDashboards is the best option for customers looking to interactively visualize and analyze their data through the dashboards they build. When I am out training new customers, I always start out with my introductory remarks by telling the customer that once we are done with training, we will be building dashboards with their data. I want them thinking about their data and their metrics the entire time I am training them on the application.

Customers are always looking for guidance on how to structure their data. They are looking for advice on where their data is stored, whether they need a data warehouse before they can use iDashboards, whether iDashboards can be used to generate values instead of needing to go back in and manipulate the data, or whether they can automate the data extraction they are currently doing.

They are continuing to take adhoc report requests, extract the data requested into a local spreadsheet, and then manually generate those reports. Then rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat on a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule.

These customers have a data conundrum and that is a big reason for their purchase of iDashboards. The irony is that iDashboards isn’t doing anything with the data other than visualizing it. It seems as though with their data conundrum they personify Einstein’s definition of insanity – “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

With one customer, I built a dashboard for them in about two hours.  After finishing the build, there was a stunned silence throughout the room, until the data analyst/adhoc report creator finally said, “What you just did in 2 hours takes me 3 days at the end of every month.”  Then she continued, saying “I’m going to have to find something to do for 3 days at the end of every month now.”

I have had customers question which should come first – the data warehouse or the iDashboards server. On a recent phone call with a potential customer, they suggested creating their data warehouse and coming back to us after that was done. Problem was, their data warehouse was going to take 18 months to become available. 18 months?! And in the meantime, they will continue to waste countless hours taking requests for adhoc reports that need to be manually generated on demand.

And, I’m always mystified when someone will say, “well we don’t really have any data to work with.” Huh? Ok, your data may not be in order, but you’ve got data. Everyone has data. We live in an age when we’re swimming in data. So, I don’t accept a statement like “We don’t have any data.”

On another recent engagement, we had reached the point in the week where we had begun storyboarding and building dashboards. The customer wanted to break this into 2 hour intervals, kind of like speed storyboarding, with different department heads coming in every two hours. An approach that I had seen used before. This time, though, the first person in the room was the CFO.

When we got to the point of gathering data, there were no specific tables built for Financial Reporting. He was used to seeing data in income statement format or balance sheet format. So, when the Database Analyst said he didn’t have any views with the financial information available, the CFO’s skepticism kept ticking up. I jumped in and offered to create data in the appropriate structure so the CFO could at least see the visualization that was possible. The CFO scoffed at that idea and now fully inflamed in skepticism, got up and walked out of the session after only 20 minutes.

There is a happy ending to the story though, the analyst put together a table directly from SQL with real data and we built a sleek financial dashboard that we showed to the CFO at the end of the week. All skepticism faded and the CFO wanted more. The moral of that story is not to use the CFO as your first foray into building dashboards from data that exists, but is not ready for use.

Although, the moral of all these stories is don’t sweat the data side. There will always be data issues. Ultimately, the visual dashboards will expose data issues or inaccuracies and potentially assist in defining the data warehouse structure for that lengthy 18 month project. But, that should not hold you back from analyzing your metrics and making business decisions with the visual dashboards that can be built off any amount of data, big or small.

The time is now. Bring your data. Let’s build some dashboards.

Jerry Stowe, Technical Consultant

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The Next Big Thing

So imagine its 1990 and the average desktop computer has a hard drive worth all of 40 MB and a cost per gigabyte of around $11,000. Fast forward to Y2K and we have consumers clamoring for a few hundred megabytes, with an average cost beginning the year around $20.00 and finding itself all the way below $10.00 by the years end.  Some pretty stunning information; in a single decade we were able to reduce the cost of a gigabyte by about 1/560th, and in the following  year halve that cost again. Now imagine its still 1990, or even 1995, when the cost was only $1,100 per gigabyte and someone comes to you and says, “Hey, in just a little more than 2 decades from now, you can buy all the space you’ll ever need!  So much in fact that the average consumer won’t even be able to fill all they buy” (legally that is).  Would you have believed that?  How about, “Best of all, they’ll be practically giving it away!”  And boy do they, has anyone been to a tradeshow lately?  I have more USB drives in my desk drawer than I know what to do with.

So back to reality, it’s 2013 and the average cost per gigabyte is $0.05, a whopping 1/224000th of the cost only 23 years earlier. The most amazing part is that the rates at which these costs have fallen, have maintained themselves over the entire 23 year period.  We’ve been able to continue to pioneer such cutting edge technological advances that we’ve kept cutting storage costs at almost the same rate for more than 30 years now.

Ok great, entertaining story, but what’s the point you ask?  We’ll I’ll tell you.  We, and I mean mankind, have been witness to some pretty huge technology booms on this planet; a few of which have been so enormous in size that they’ve not only created, but changed and influenced our global economy and allowed us to write a future almost no one could’ve predicted was coming. Take for example the creation of the Personal Computer (PC); there certainly was a point where computers were so large, so expensive, and so difficult to operate, no one would’ve predicted that one day most homes in America would have one, let alone one in everyone’s hand.  Just the same, take the internet; what started as a few computers being able to communicate back and forth with each other bloomed into a limitless means for communication and information transaction globally.  Once idolizing the educated for their knowledge, the internet now has us idolizing farm-raised girls from Nebraska impressing doctoral scientists on primetime television with their broad knowledge of  anything science. Thank you Google (and yes that’s my shameful Big Bang Theory reference).  But back to the point, both were major booms, and both are directly responsible for changing the course of existence (not to get too sentimental about it). So what about all this data stuff?  In 2011, it was calculated that since 1986 we as humans have stored more than 295 billion gigabytes. What that really means is there’s a lot, and it’s only getting worse considering you can record a gigabyte of information for a mere Jefferson (that’d be a nickel). There’s another huge boom coming, and it’s coming in the form of a way to handle this massive tidal wave of information.  To store it, to access it, to digest it, and most importantly to make sense and learn something from it; and we want it all done easily, finished yesterday, and making our decisions for us!

It would appear technology has spoiled us, but maybe that’s just because we just keep setting the bar higher and higher and keep reaching it each time!

Jason Wolan, Professional Services Manager

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Life of SE

After 6 weeks of back to back engagements I found myself sitting at the Denver airport waiting for my return flight to Detroit. As I sat, I thought it would be a good idea to blog about being on the road as a Sales Engineer (SE) at iDashboards. You may have noticed that the blog headline is in reference to the movie Life of Pi, which is an adventure movie. I wouldn’t call my job adventurous, but it surely is exciting and very interesting.

When I look back at the last 6 weeks, I have been to 6 different States in three different time zones. I visited 6 different clients, most of them operating in different industries. If I had to point out one engagement as the most interesting, though, I would have to say it was my engagement in Florida with a start-up company. The reason for that is because for the first time, I had a chance to work with a company that was still in the process of defining itself.

There I was, sitting in a conference room with four people. Two of which were founders of the company, and two IT guys that had just started working there. The objective was to create a couple of dashboards in the three days that I was supposed be there. It was clear to me, the three day training agenda that I had in mind would not apply here and I actually did not mind. We started right away looking at their data and talking about their ideas with regards to charts and dashboards. At the end of the third day, we were able to create three dashboards. I must admit, they were all very basic dashboards because of the data available, but the client was happy with what we were able do, and I had also the feeling that the client had a really good handle on our product after 3 days of intense development.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of improvising, creating “things” on the fly, and of course technical issues, but at the end of the day we achieved the objective, and I was happy that I could help them get their dashboard initiative off the ground.

It looks like I will be in the iDashboards office for the next couple of weeks, but I hope to soon be on the road again training clients on the iDashboards product. Who knows? Maybe I will even get the chance to visit all 50 States, as well as some exotic destinations during my travels.

Aziz Sanal, Technical Consultant

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“Star Database”

Last week someone asked me if I knew anything about “Star Database”. At the time, I did not. However, I did know about the Star schema/structure of that “data warehouse”. These tech jargons keep making their way into the discussions about business intelligence (BI)/reporting /dashboarding and sometimes they can be confusing. Following is an attempt to shed some light on the use of databases without all the jargon for business intelligence.

From a high level perspective we can put the databases in two categories for business intelligence purposes:

1. Data Collection databases
2. Business Intelligence databases

The first category is all about enabling an organization to function and assist in its operations. Good examples of data collecting databases are ERP, HR, Sales, Marketing applications. This data generates from day-to-day activities and is crucial for the organization to function.

Due to various factors this data is
• stored in multiple databases
• structured a certain way (“Normalized”)
• detailed and may not be BI ready
• often times vendor-specific

The second category is all about enabling the decision making of the organization (at all levels, especially at the executive level). Most of the data in these databases is derived from the first category. The term information is used instead in this category because we are trying to make sense of the data and convert it into pieces of information that can be used in decision making. This information empowers the organization to plan, analyze, grow and better itself. Dashboard, Reporting, Business Analytics, Predictive Analytics and Planning applications are good examples for utilizing this type of database.

Data in this category is
• very concise
• well defined for the decision making process
• structured for easy retrieval
• structured in certain way (“de-normalized”, “Star”, “Data mart (DM)”, “Data warehouse (DW)”, “Summary”, “OLAP”, “Cube”, “Enterprise data warehouse (EDW)”)
• generally aggregated/calculated from the first category
• stored into one or only a few databases
• clean with great quality

For business intelligence tools (Dashboard, Reports, Analytics etc.) the second category is the preferred way to go. These tools pull quality and aggregated data (information) to be used for decision making. However, sometimes you may see exceptions where business intelligence tools are getting the data from the first category database.

This division of databases into two categories has traditionally been the case and still prevalent. However, there are several emerging technologies which are following different patterns to cater to the needs of both the categories e.g.:
• database appliance
• Big Data infrastructure
• database as service/database in Cloud
• database web services
• Self data discovery

Still confused about some jargons or similar topics, leave a comment below.

Zahid Ansari – Principal Consultant, iDashboards

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Using Color Ranges for Easy Management by Exception

One question that all managers ask themselves is: “What are we doing well and what are we not doing well?” As you look at your spreadsheets and reports, it’s sometimes hard to tell at a quick glance where the problem areas are so you can focus your time and efforts on the areas that need it the most. One of the features in iDashboards that helps to solve that problem is our Color Range Sets. So, how do they work?

Let’s take the following map chart as an example:

In this map chart, a sales executive is able to use a simple red, yellow, green color scheme to see which states have revenue below $10,000,000 (in red) and which are above $25,000,000 (in green). As soon as he or she opens the dashboard, the executive can tell that the company is struggling with sales in four states and will be able investigate why.

To create your own color range sets, just right-click on your chart, select chart properties, and find the colors tab. You will see the section called Range Sets:

Here you will able to create as many or as few ranges as you like. You can add colors by clicking on the empty color box near the bottom, selecting your color, then entering the lower number of your range. It’s that simple! You can use these ranges on all kinds of charts, like bar charts, line charts, speedometers, and more. Just keep in mind that for some chart types, such as bar charts, you may have to go to the features tab to enable showing the colors (In that case you have the option to color code the bars or the grid background).

So now that you know how to color code your charts, go try it yourself and see how much easier it can be to visualize your data!

Alex Stark- Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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Keep Calm and Chart On

I’ll let you in on a secret. Your charts don’t have to be perfect. There, I’ve said it, so now you know. Go forth, build charts, and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Oh, you are still reading? OK, let me explain. Charts and dashboards should evolve, so don’t spend too much time worrying about Version 1.0. When you are prototyping quickly you don’t need to worry about creating the perfect charts, layouts, or colors on the first try. As your data comes to life with visual dashboards, your storyboards can and will change. If storyboarding was a one-shot deal we would carve them in stone instead of drawing them on whiteboards.

“Save As” is my second most-used feature in iDashboards (my favorite is the “Preview” button, which lets me test design tweaks on the fly). Every time I train new users, I compare iDashboards to a digital camera. Years ago, you had to worry about the cost of film but with a digital camera, you can take as many pictures as you like. With iDashboards you are not paying per chart or per dashboard, so make as many as you like! When you are done, you can go back and delete any charts/dashboards/pictures that you really do not need.

Saving multiple versions of dashboards and charts is a key part of my workflow, and I highly recommend the same for yours. Whether it’s trying out different layouts or overhauling existing dashboards with new metrics, it’s always good to keep backups of your older designs. Select “Save As” from the right-click menu, and simply increment the version number of your dashboard or chart. You never know when you might show off a new design to your end users and they say “Oh you know what, the old version was better.” If you overwrote it, you might have to rebuild it from scratch! Of course, not every change has to be versioned; you can make a judgment call on how significant the change is.

I always remember the user who added a version number to his first practice dashboard, not as ‘v1’ or ‘v01’, but ‘v001’. Seeing my confused look, he said, “I know I will make that many versions!” It may have been overkill, but he definitely had the right attitude from the start. Don’t be afraid to make new charts, and don’t be afraid to try new things.

In the future, we will share other design tips, tricks, and shortcuts to simplify your dashboard development. In the meantime, Keep Calm and Chart On!

Warren Singh- Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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Cascading Parameters Solution

The new drilldown type “Dashboard Parameters” in v8.0 will allow a chart type to pass parameter values to every other chart on the dashboard if it is designed to do so. Subsequently, this allows use of a ViFrame chart for nothing more than to contain pivots which cascade values. For instance, if a dashboard has two fields (Brand & Hotel), each with a pivot, as the end user selects a Brand from the first pivot then the second pivot will only show Hotels in the Brand selected.

I have set up a simple example with only two fields in which both are pivots (Image Below). One key thing to keep in mind is that this is limited to 3000 records, so take note that there is a count in order to return distinct combinations of the values. Also, please note that the “Update Button” is merely an image used to execute the drilldown, this means that a person could create their own descriptive button if they would like.

In looking at this dashboard, a few other things are apparent that may not have been seen before such as Color Range Sets on a ViFrame. Please feel free to take a look at how it is configured with expressions.

There are many commonly requested features that have viable solutions with a bit of creativity. Many of these solutions have been posted in articles on the iDashboards Support Portal – commonly known as OSKAR. If you have not yet logged into OSKAR, I highly recommend that you do as you may find solutions that address your needs.

Zach Breimayer- Technical Consultant, iDashboards

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