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Getting Started With Dashboards
Evaluating Vendors And Dashboard Products

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Thursday, February 25, 2010

In my discussions with Dashboard Insight readers and in meetings with seasoned IT managers, the following question comes up frequently: “How do I best evaluate vendors of business intelligence (BI) software and choose the dashboard solution that is most appropriate for my organization?”  Based on countless years of evaluating BI application platforms and service providers, I would like to share with you a short list of important items to consider when procuring BI dashboard software. 

When tasked with picking a vendor to partner with on your BI dashboard endeavors, a large amount of due diligence and marketplace research must be conducted before software or consulting companies are approached.  In particular, find out which software companies have achieved success in implementing dashboard solutions in your particular industry.  And don’t think that you will just “play it safe” by going with big name software packages from the likes of IBM or Microsoft - bigger does not necessarily mean better with respect to BI vendors.  You will need to find the right blend of software and service that suits your needs in a customized fashion.  BI solutions providers and dashboard productivity suites will need to be scrutinized according to several criteria.

Viability: It is important that a vendor has a sound financial balance sheet and that their business will be strong and stable far out into the future.  While it won’t provide the most detailed information about how well a suite of dashboard tools perform tactically, Gartner Group’s Magic Quadrant usually contains useful insight into the viability of software organizations by ranking them according to two main criteria: "ability to execute” and “completeness of vision.”

Vision: For BI software vendors, a sound vision is critical to the future success of their clients.  Ask yourself, does their vision of dashboard utilization and knowledge delivery include such things as cloud computing, open source, data visualization/mashups, virtualization, and far beyond?  In addition to their dashboard toolsets, do they possess a complete and comprehensive BI platform and a well-socialized product strategy that will bi-directionally scale in tandem with your organization?

Trust: It pays huge dividends to make doubly sure that the BI dashboard provider really does understand your business.  One good way to do this is to engage the vendor in a small proof of concept or prototype application that will use real-life data from your company’s data stores.  Also, it is relevant to understand how they have helped companies similar to yours, with similar business problems, in the past.  Take care to ask for detailed case studies involving past clients and other value-added documentation that shows a steadfast commitment to customers.  Interview prospective service and software providers by submitting to them a few high-level business-use cases and ask them to explain how they would best approach each case given your budget and time constraints.

Expertise: Once you have implemented a dashboard solution, it will be imperative that you can easily find human resources with adequate skills to maintain and expand the dashboard and support its infrastructure.  Care must be taken not to be completely locked-in and at the mercy of the vendor’s consulting services, which will probably tend to be much more expensive than equivalent resources available on the open market.

Time to Market: Do not be shy about asking for a detailed project plan (before the Statement of Work phase) that captures the essence of your dashboard requirements.  Are expectations aligned with those of the vendor?  Do both parties have the necessary resources (people and hardware) to craft an intuitive dashboard platform under tight budgets and deadlines?

Maintenance and Licensing: There must be complete transparency into the real cost of vendor licensing and (post-production) consulting charges.  Is the bulk of technical support going to be provided on-site or over the phone?  If phone support is included, will calls be routed to dashboard experts in North America, or to a call center located overseas where it may not be as effective or accountable?

The topics above will help get your organization on the right road toward performing BI vendor due diligence and gaining a better understanding of the BI market landscape.  However, like any strategic IT undertaking, you will need to understand your exact technology and business requirements.  Rarely should you rely on a software company to help you write your dashboard requirements; if your business organization is that lost, it’s a better idea to bring in an independent (vendor-neutral) third-party consulting company with BI expertise to do a needs analysis and make recommendations for you.

Since BI dashboarding projects can often be large scale intra-department affairs that measure performance on an enterprise-wide basis, they can be tremendously costly.  So it is vital to choose a BI vendor that can show a comprehensive track record of success in your specific industry or sphere of operations, especially with respect to keeping implementation and ownership costs low for their clients.  This will be crucial when you consider that the initial cost to implement a BI dashboard often will be dwarfed by costs associated with maintenance and enhancements.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices´┐Żacross all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide. As Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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