Some analytics that you run will be one-off, to answer a specific question. The results can then be reported in traditional ways using data visualization or through infographics.

There are, however, other analytics that relate to ongoing strategic key performance indicators (KPIs), tactical, or operational issues. The results of those enquiries will need to be reported regularly and the best way to do that is to create a management dashboard.

Take Procter & Gamble (P&G), for example. A global business with hundreds of brands, P&G has chosen to institutionalise data visualisation as a primary tool of management. Working with a visual analytics software vendor, the company put visual displays of key information on over 50,000 desktops that now provide access to a ‘Decision Cockpit’.

By establishing a common visual language for data, P&G have been able to radically upgrade how the data is used to direct decision-making and take action.

Like P&G’s ‘Cockpit’ dashboard, a management dashboard allows you to report relevant ongoing results that will help to keep the business on track toward objectives.

The two dashboards every business needs

But it actually isn’t enough to have just one dashboard; I believe every business needs two dashboards: strategic and operational. Like the cockpit instruments in a fighter jet, they allow the executive to know exactly where he or she is at any given time and focus on getting to the destination in one piece. The key, however, is to ensure they are aligned.

Companies often get the two sets of data mixed up and have too many operational metrics on the strategic dashboard (or vice versa).

If you take the analogy of flying a fighter jet one step further, you have an ‘operational’ dashboard in front of a pilot used to take the jet on a successful mission. It shows speed, altitude, and all the more tactical measures used to deliver on the operational objectives — in other words, flying the plane, completing the mission, and landing safely.

Then there is mission control back at the base where they have a more strategic view of things. They look at weather conditions, air traffic, and any unidentified objects in the flight path. They understand the big picture strategy so that the pilot can focus on the operations.

Operational dashboards monitor day-to-day processes and outputs to make sure expectations and performance are met consistently. They provide information that allows us to fix issues before they become problems and incrementally improve performance.

Strategic dashboards, on the other hand, look to the future and seek to identify obstacles and challenges that may occur on the way to the strategic destination. Both are important.

Both are important but serve different purposes. One is looking ahead and looking at the bigger picture, the other one is more focused, looking just at the current operational task.

The same is required in most businesses. It is not a good idea to swamp the strategic dashboards with too much detailed operational information. But neither is it smart to confuse operations with too much high level data.

Developing management dashboards

A management dashboard is simply the concise visual display of the most mission critical performance indicators needed to help executives and decision makers deliver on strategic and operational objectives. If you would like to get a feel of what sort of metrics to include, check out this KPI library.

Like the dials in the cockpit of the fighter jet, dashboards help everyone stay on track. They are best considered from an operational and strategic perspective.

All of the tips for creating a successful infographic are also relevant to creating a successful dashboard. When I advise clients on their dashboards, we always make sure they contain a mix of headlines and narratives as well as clear and well-designed graphs and charts.

Whether you decide to report results through traditional reporting that utilises some data visualization techniques or whether you opt for management dashboards and/or infographics will very often depend on your in-house expertise.

For large companies like P&G, it’s possible and practical to have an Information and Decision Solutions department. Data analyst and visualisation experts attend the meetings to bridge the gap between the data and the decision-makers who need it.

For smaller companies this may not be as practical. But one thing is for sure: if you use data in your business, then you must develop these competencies either in-house or outsource to a trusted provider. Either way, data analysis and data visualisation are two sides of the same coin.

Read Bernard’s other columns for the Hiscox small business knowledge centre over on the Bernard Marr column hub

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