With Dashboard Insight focused on "trends" this month, I thought I'd take the opportunity to highlight something I've noticed in recent years: the industry seems to be moving towards more platform-based dashboard solutions and vendors are now actively promoting this position.
Traditionally, dashboards were part of vendors' larger product lines and weren’t the major focus of their offering, which usually concentrated on data consolidation and analytics. However, as dashboards became more popular in the corporate community, BI companies started to offer more dashboard-centric solutions.
Early on, most dashboard-building packages were limited, "out-of-the-box" applications that offered almost no customization or expansion capabilities. For example, a system integrator (SI) interested in creating a dashboard specializing in the manufacturing industry had to be careful about the dashboard product chosen for delivery. If vertical-specific visualizations (like a workflow diagram) were required, the SI would look for a dashboard product with that particular visualization. Consequentially and most likely, the dashboard product would usually be missing other types of required features. In other words, there was no one product that could satisfy everyone’s needs out of the box and that reality is not going to change anytime soon. The good news: vendors are now recognizing the power of a platform-based dashboard solution to address these kinds of issues.
In the software world, a platform is a framework that offers a basic set of core features and interfaces to solve a particular business challenge. By providing "hooks" for extension and customization, developers can use the platform's application programming interface (API) to build any functionality they want into the system. With a dashboard platform, the manufacturing company mentioned above would not have to worry about a dashboard product missing certain features because they would just implement any feature they needed with the platform.
I believe there are four major areas - or key attributes - of a solid BI dashboard platform:
- Comprehensive data connections - there are many different types of data sources in the business world. A practical platform allows for system integrators to create custom hooks to any kind of data source. A generic dashboard package covers many popular data sources but are still limited to what they provide. A good example is vertical-specific analytics engines, as these engines aren’t always readily accessible via a run-of-the-mill dashboard application.
- The ability to define a KPI or business metric - and the ability to extract that information from the system. With this functionality, you get complete customization capabilities for presenting business metrics. (In other words, you can implement any type of dashboard interface.) For example, the dashboard could be in a desktop application or web application. You can use any type of third-party visualization components to hook up to a business metric and you can further massage the data behind the business metric via your own analytics engine.
- The ability to plug in additional types of data visualizations into the dashboard system - I believe this is an absolute must for specific or niche verticals. This allows the use of any third-party visualization component within the platform’s dashboard designer. With this functionality, the platform can be customized to address any vertical.
- And finally, the ability to integrate a dashboard into other systems or applications. This allows for dashboards created in this system to be part of a larger BI offering.
So when is a platform the right choice for BI professionals? I think for small dashboard initiatives (say, one to five dashboards), you could be happy with something that's simple and out of the box, as there is no need for a long-term investment. But if you're looking at a strategy going forward to add more dashboards as your organization grows, then it makes more sense to use a platform solution. With a platform, you don’t have to worry about sourcing another solution, you just need to think about finding resources to customize your dashboard. Choosing the right dashboard platform from the beginning results in long-term cost savings because you don’t have to spend time researching a new product to satisfy your needs, you don’t have to retrain your staff on a new product - and most importantly - you don’t have to invest in another system.
Dashboard solutions can never address all business problems; there will always be a need for some type of customization to help make sense of your data. By choosing a dashboard platform with the four attributes mentioned above, organizations can be confident their business needs will be met (with some development work). As more vendors recognize the added value of a providing platform-based dashboard solutions, this trend will give companies more options than ever before.
About the Author
Alexander Chiang is Vice President of Product Management with Dundas Data Visualization, and runs the product management group for Dundas Dashboard. He formerly led the Dundas Consulting Group, where he advised a variety of Fortune 100 companies on the technology platforms and tools that best fit their dashboard requirements. His many years of user interface design and his expertise in data visualization techniques have enabled him to facilitate effective software solutions for the broader BI community.