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A Look at Software Selection for Dashboards

by Lyndsay WiseSunday, June 26, 2011

Introduction

The business intelligence market is quite expansive.  Hundreds of solutions exist from dashboards through to analytics databases and data integration offerings. Determining which ones will provide a best fit might be difficult unless an organization is well versed in the market landscape or tied to a specific set of offerings. Either way, understanding the market and matching available offerings to business needs can help increase the likelihood of overall project success. Without this level of education, organizations may not end up with solutions that best meet their current and future business needs.

Because software selection is so important, organizations need to include it within their project plan. Software evaluation comes as an extension of business and technical considerations. Once an organization or business unit knows what they want, they can move towards developing an appropriate short list. And although this process on its own   presents a large chunk of pre-implementation activities, it represents a key element that cannot be overlooked.

This article provides an overview of the steps required to successfully choose the right software offerings within the BI market landscape. The general considerations provide a subset of the questions organizations should ask themselves when considering new software. After answering these questions, businesses can move towards a successful dashboard implementation.

The following sections offer a good first step and outline that can be used within any BI project initiative; however, keep in mind that the list should be tailored to fit your organization.

General considerations

The following considerations should help narrow down your software selection:

  1. What is the organization hoping to achieve with a dashboard solution? Although this is a very fundamental and obvious question to ask, it rarely gets the attention and consideration it deserves.  In many cases, businesses feel that they lack visibility and transparency into their business performance.. Dashboards allow you to access critical information via a single interface. On the back end, data is consolidated from a series of disparate data sources so that it can be linked to provide insights into how sales, supply chain, and employee performance link up. Other companies want to monitor and manage key performance indicators and organization wide metrics.

  2. What currently exists? BI and dashboard use differs within each organization.  The solution chosen will depend upon the existing BI infrastructure. If an organization has a proprietary solution in-house, their ability to integrate third party solutions may be difficult or wasteful. . When replacing an existing system, it is necessary to analyze the current tools and processes to determine where the best integration points are for a third-party solution.  For organizations looking at a dashboard for the first time, the sky is the limit in terms of what offerings can be considered - especially when your data comes from a non-proprietary source.

  3. Are there technical or business roadblocks? As an extension of the current environment, technical stumbling blocks may exist that inhibit the consideration of certain solutions.  For example, you have to verify that the dashboard solution works with your existing data sources and that the dashboard software is easy to deploy and maintain. Other roadblocks may arise from your business requirements (see consideration #1).. For instance, operational dashboards require the ability to either stream data, or at least to be able to update information several times a day.  Not all vendors can support these requirements.  Another business requirement may be for advanced analytics and the development of predictive models - many dashboard vendors do not support this functionality except as part of a broader BI offering.

  4.  What about longer term goals? In addition to short term use and initial implementation requirements, businesses should look at long-term goals.  If the first stage of the dashboard project reflects a much smaller implementation than what is hoped for in the long term, organizations should also look at whether the software vendor, as well as the software itself, support expansion without many changes in hardware or pricing. For some organizations this means developing a rollout strategy. Even though companies may be unable to identify specific questions that will be asked by end users in the future, based on historical performance and business pains, it becomes possible for organizations to identify the data that underlies potential issues that may occur. Based on this fact alone, businesses can develop a framework for longer term dashboard needs even though these requirements may fall outside of the initial dashboard implementation goals. 

Software evaluation

Once the above questions have been addressed, vendor selection can begin.  The considerations below are a set of first steps and provide guidelines for the software evaluation process.

  1. Visualization and business considerations. Many organizations want their solution to look appealing. But the reality is that businesses require strong data visualizations that adequately reflect the identified metrics or that convey their meaning without requiring an explanation or training.

  2. Data infrastructure. Any data requirements relate back to the technical requirements discussed above. Solution providers can give IT staff advice and guidelines regarding what needs to be done to properly implement a solution. Selecting the right vendor means aligning the vendor requirements with what exists internally.

  3. Data integration requirements. Data integration is an area that cannot be overlooked. Consolidating information, maintaining quality, and managing data validity over time helps ensure a successful dashboard. Organizations should make sure that the software they purchase integrates easily with their existing data infrastructure, or that there is the possibility of adding such functionality.

  4. Value added services. Businesses may require consulting or implementation services from solution providers. Each offers alternatives in services including training, consulting and implementation, and all at different price points.  In some cases, the added services that vendors provide tip the scales during the software selection process. Organizations need to be aware of the fact that expertise in a particular industry vertical can be more beneficial overall than the features or the look of the software.

  5. Making a short list. Once the project has progressed to the point where there is a clear understanding of the business and technical requirements, organizations are ready to select vendors. External consultants or online searches might be a good first step. There are also general guides available on the Web that can help create the final short list.

  6. Proof of concept (POC). POCs cannot be overlooked. Solution providers tend to oversell their solutions because of their strong marketing campaigns.  And although there is no obvious deception, different dashboards will look different and require varying levels of expertise to implement and to maintain. By seeing company data within a dashboard and walking through the process, it becomes possible to see whether there is a fit - in terms of development, design, and maintenance.

Making the final choice

The last step involves selecting the solution that best meets the requirements of the organization. After gathering POCs from each vendor and seeing their products in action, most businesses will be ready to make their final choice. By following the steps above, organizations will be on their way towards selecting a dashboard that can be aligned with the overall business goals and BI vision.

About the Author

Lyndsay Wise is an industry analyst for business intelligence. For over seven years, she has assisted clients in business systems analysis, software selection and implementation of enterprise applications. Lyndsay is the channel expert for BI for the Mid-Market at B-eye-Network and conducts research of leading technologies, products and vendors in business intelligence, marketing performance management, master data management, and unstructured data. She can be reached at lwise@wiseanalytics.com. And please visit Lyndsay's blog at myblog.wiseanalytics.com.


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