Business Process Assessment Guide
A digital dashboard is a customized solution for knowledge workers that consolidates personal, team, corporate, and external information and provides single-click access to analytical and collaborative tools. It brings an integrated view of a company's knowledge sources to an individual's desktop, enabling better decision making by providing immediate access to key business information. This white paper explains the benefits of a digital dashboard and identifies key issues to consider when you are designing a digital dashboard solution.
Prepared in conjunction with
Published: May 2000
Business Process Assessment Guide
Published: May 2000
In today’s information age, when intellectual capital and human resources are the most critical assets of many organizations, leading companies are developing practices and strategies for managing knowledge and information. Executives and management teams are discovering that companies that reward collaboration and information sharing are outperforming companies that discourage these practices because of their corporate culture or the technologies they use.
Knowledge workers are faced with escalating amounts of information and increasing demands for their expertise. Consequently, they are looking constantly for the information they need to assess the changes that are shaping the marketplace.
For years, IT professionals have promised executives access to a wealth of information from many sources, but they have delivered more data than workers can assimilate. Workers may be getting plenty of information, but they need better tools to filter the information and customize it to meet their needs.
Without properly managing its knowledge assets, a company cannot operate profitably or grow effectively. Information is lost, trends go unnoticed, and completed jobs are re-created. Knowledge-management processes and technologies help organizations respond to constantly shifting business dynamics by ensuring that workers have the information they need to assess and act upon business opportunities.
A digital dashboard is a customized solution for knowledge workers that consolidates personal, team, corporate, and external information and provides single-click access to analytical and collaborative tools. It brings an integrated view of a company's knowledge sources to an individual's desktop, enabling better decision making by providing immediate access to key business information.
A digital dashboard consists of Web Parts, reusable components that can contain any kind of Web-based information. A Web Part can be a simple component that displays a user’s favorite Web site, or it can be a sophisticated component that integrates your existing systems with the analytical and collaborative tools in products such as Microsoft Office, Microsoft Exchange Server, and Microsoft SQL Server. By creating customized Web Parts, you can tailor a digital dashboard solution to meet the specific needs of your company.
The following illustration shows a digital dashboard for a company called Adventure Works. This digital dashboard contains components that display the user’s Inbox, MSN Messenger Service, calendar, and critical information about the company.
A digital dashboard dynamically integrates personal, team, corporate, and external information.
A successful digital dashboard deployment is designed with the following goals in mind:
· Focus on critical information. With so much information coming from so many sources, knowledge workers often spend hours sorting through various materials to find one key point. A digital dashboard helps solve information overload by delivering focused, vital business data through the use of filters, user-specified categories, and summaries. Users can access high-level information in relevant business reports directly from digital dashboards.
· Integrate information from a variety of sources. Unlike some browser-only portal solutions that deliver information solely from the Web or an intranet, a digital dashboard integrates information from a variety of sources. Key business data from corporate applications, Internet and intranet sites, team folders, and personal files can all be organized and viewed easily on a digital dashboard.
· Use company knowledge fully. Digital dashboards enable knowledge workers to make use of each other’s knowledge. As corporations become more global, it becomes more difficult for workers to collaborate. Whether they are in the office next door or on another continent, workers can use a digital dashboard to locate and communicate with experts, collaborate on projects, and research corporate presentations and documents. Because digital dashboards are based on Active Server Pages and XML technology, companies can incorporate real-time tools into their digital dashboard solutions, such as Microsoft NetMeeting® conferencing software and Microsoft Windows Media™ Player, which enables people to access dynamic streaming media content such as company communications, online training materials, and business broadcasts from the Internet or intranet.
Digital dashboard allows users to integrate unstructured and structured data alongside rich collaboration and communication tools.
· Work with the same information, in the office or on the move. Digital dashboards enable workers to make efficient and effective business decisions no matter where they are. Nearly 44 million people traveled for business in 1998, up 14 percent from 1994, and the average business trip lasted about 2.5 days. Knowledge workers are often away from their desks but still to access their company’s networks and the World Wide Web and communicate with their teams and their customers. Using a digital dashboard, knowledge workers can view information from any source—including messaging and company applications, public folders, and favorite Web sites—from a Web browser, through a synchronized Outlook 2000 view, or with a Personal Digital Assistant with wired or wireless access.
As workers increasingly use digital dashboards to view their daily activities, share information with coworkers, and get feedback on company performance, these systems have a profound effect on workers’ priorities. For example, if a digital dashboard provides regular notifications of customer-satisfaction ratings, workers become more sensitive to the needs of their customers. In this way, you can use digital dashboards to direct corporate focus.
Digital dashboards can host virtually any type of information. Because of this, much of the time designing digital dashboards is spent analyzing the needs of users, assessing the information resources within the company, and ensuring the cultural acceptance of the tool. The Digital Dashboard Resource Kit 2.0 includes sample dashboard, templates, and a gallery of Microsoft and third-party Web Parts. Because of this, developing a digital dashboard is often the simplest part of the process.
The digital dashboard development process consists of four key steps:
· Choosing the pilot group
· Conducting the needs assessment
· Tapping the information resources
· Developing and implementing the system
The purpose of this paper is not to outline a development methodology, but to highlight areas in which the process of developing digital dashboards might differ from the process of developing other types of solutions. Issues that arise when companies are developing digital dashboards often have less to do with the application itself than with cultural issues, information availability and consistency, and business value.
Choosing the right pilot group sets the tone for the entire project. The culture of the company or organization usually determines the best group of users. Consider speed, momentum, and strategic relevance when choosing the pilot group. Choosing a strategic group within the organization can ensure that the project’s success is both visible and measurable.
Here are some general pointers on how to identify potential pilot groups for digital dashboard deployments:
· Select a visible group. A pilot group with high visibility can generate a greater cultural shift. While a digital dashboard is not exclusively an executive tool, the influence of executives makes them good pilot candidates. However, because executives also have different needs than other employees within the company, it is important to investigate the needs of other groups through a tandem pilot.
· Choose a group that is representative of the strategic direction of the company. Digital dashboards often influence the way information is delivered throughout an organization. Working with the information and user communities that have the greatest potential value guarantee the greatest impact.
· Look for groups in which valuable knowledge is being lost. For instance, a sales group that does not properly capture information on customer visits and winning sales strategies can serve as a pilot that has a measurable impact on revenue.
· Consider the types of information the group uses. If the information is stale, erroneous, or held in antiquated systems, it can slow down a pilot project significantly.
· Use multiple pilot sites in larger, more global organizations. Bandwidth, cultural issues, and information needs in larger organizations vary greatly from country to country. Not understanding these issues may hurt the long-term effectiveness of the project.
· Beware of groups with high barriers to information sharing. Determine, through background interviews, the levels of software experience and skill, receptivity towards new technology, and any reluctance that may exist among key stakeholders. In many cases, the owners of information or knowledge are hesitant to share. However, once people realize the benefits of the pilot, they become more amenable to sharing information.
Find a high-level sponsor—often the CEO, president, or business unit leader—who can help gather the necessary resources for the project. These individuals should also receive digital dashboards. A sponsor who endorses and uses a digital dashboard helps foster a collaborative, team-based approach to sharing information and knowledge and can remove many perceived risks of using the system.
In addition to the pilot group of users, a working team of stakeholders is critical to a successful digital dashboard deployment. Select between five and ten stakeholders; include the sponsor plus subject matter experts, usage characteristic experts, data and information producers, and IT professionals. Too many stakeholders can make it difficult to balance the many needs of a large constituency.
The stakeholder team includes these informal roles:
· Sponsor. Provides the motivation for change in addition to demonstrating the value of the system.
· Business Owner. Defines the strategic goals of the pilot project and ensures focus on enhancing business productivity.
· Technology Infrastructure Owner. Gives perspective on the maintenance of the system and the long-term impact of digital dashboards on the organization.
· Pilot Group Representative. Brings the knowledge workers’ perspective to the stakeholder team. This person should focus on the difficulties of adapting end users to the system rather than on the final benefits.
· Information-Resource Owners. Represents the people who manage information resources that will be available on the digital dashboard. Typical resources, which are discussed later in this paper, are customer-relationship information, accounting data, and training and development content.
In smaller businesses, the more organic nature of the organization and the less complex infrastructure often means that these types of broad stakeholder teams can be managed in a more ad-hoc fashion.
A digital dashboard is an excellent way to combine information from disparate sources into an integrated, customizable, and interactive environment. A needs-assessment clarifies which information sources will yield the greatest impact as a part of a digital dashboard solution. To assure a rapid development process, you can conduct the needs-assessment at the same time you identify available sources of information.
The needs-assessment balances end-user needs with the overall business strategy. Digital dashboard projects tend to start with a limited focus and then grow. Too often, as additional stakeholders provide requirements and specifications, the project becomes increasingly complex and cultural issues begin to pile up. This added complexity often makes it difficult or impossible to deliver an end-to-end system in a reasonable time. In addition, these projects often involve multiple iterations, so it is important to focus on the components that add the most value.
Because digital dashboards are inherently flexible, the temptation to solve every problem and present every type of information in a digital dashboard can lead to feature creep, which results in a lack of focus. To help guide the needs assessment process, decide which business objectives the digital dashboard will support and use these objectives to prioritize the components that you include on your digital dashboards.
If you design your digital dashboards to meet clearly defined business goals, they can reinforce your company’s business priorities. For example, if you create digital dashboards to highlight customer satisfaction in a particular market segment or an organizational value such as training, users will have these company initiatives in the forefront of their minds.
Because digital dashboards are a new type of solution, the greatest challenge may be in educating the sponsor, stakeholders, and pilot group about the opportunities that digital dashboards offer. At the beginning of the needs assessment, demonstrate the functionality that digital dashboards can provide. To do this, you can use the Digital Dashboard Resource Kit 2.0, which provides everything you need to create digital dashboards and Web Parts. The resource kit includes sample dashboards and templates that you can easily customize to meet the needs of your organization. In addition, the resource kit contains a gallery of Microsoft and third-party Web Parts, allowing you to create demonstration dashboards for your users quickly and easily.
Use examples that are specific to your company to engage participants and provokes further investigation into the solution. Here are some examples of the functionality you may want to include in your first Web Parts:
· Automated alerts based on strategic goals
· Relevant industry news
· Financial reporting with in-depth analysis
· Project tracking and reminders
· A specific line-of-business application such as sales-force automation
· Customer information—both external and internal
· Business analysis
· Personal calendar, electronic mail, and tasks
· Weather, traffic, and other external news that may affect business
While it may seem tangential, life-style information can encourage people to use a digital dashboard on a consistent basis. Often, information such as weather, sports, and traffic can keep a digital dashboard attractive and interesting to users. Keep in mind, though, that too many channels of information can slow network bandwidth and too much life-style information can detract from your original business goals.
Consider the types of information the pilot group uses frequently to help prioritize content on the digital dashboard. Ask the pilot group to define the information they need to make decisions. Boiling it down to this level forces people to consider which information is absolutely necessary.
The following characteristics are hallmarks of information that are useful in a digital dashboard:
· Information that is used consistently
· Information that has strategic relevance
· Alerts where timeliness is key
· Paperless storage areas that are accessed frequently, such as a forms library
Once you have identified what kinds of information should be included in your digital dashboard, focus on how that information is used. If you don’t provide information in a usable format, people will use the digital dashboard inconsistently or not at all.
Consider the following issues to determine how the various sources and types of information are used:
· Does the information need to be available offline? This depends on roles of users in your organization. Make sure that the pilot group reflects the needs of the corporation as a whole. If you run the digital dashboard in the Microsoft Outlook® messaging and collaboration client, virtually any information, whether it’s data from Exchange Server, SQL Server, or the Web, can be taken offline.
· Is the information read-only? While digital dashboards dynamically enable knowledge workers to find information easily, you may want to limit your users’ ability to write to certain information sources. If the underlying applications are based on the Windows DNA platform and support the Microsoft Windows security model, access rights are not an issue. Environments with multiple security systems can be difficult for users, requiring them to log into multiple applications.
· Can the user change data when offline? If users will enter data while offline, you need a way to store that data until it is synchronized to the server. Outlook, Exchange Server, and SQL Server support this type of data entry and can be synchronized with other databases to ensure data integrity between information stores.
· How current must the data be? Sometimes having up-to-the-minute data is not as important as making data available offline. While Microsoft products support up-to-the-second information gathering and distribution, consider the tradeoffs, such as network bandwidth, the security of financial-information, and client storage capacities.
· Can information be customized and to what degree? The types of information you include—such as personal or business information—may dictate the extent to which you and your users can tailor it. Personal information, such as e-mail and day-to-day project files, generally requires a high level of customization based on personal preferences, while business information can generally be tailored to the user’s role in the organization. This information will help you plan the Web Parts you want to include in your dashboard. User can choose from a variety of Web Parts and then position them on a digital dashboard according to their personal work style and needs, as shown in the following illustrations.
Users can select Web Parts and position them on a dashboard using a drag-and-drop operation.
In most cases, much of the information a digital dashboard requires already exists within a company. Work with stakeholders and information-resource owners to identify which information assets to tap for a digital dashboard. Often these resources are located on a mainframe or in a data warehouse. In other cases, the information may be in a semi-structured format or on the Web.
Collaborate with information-resource owners to get buy-in and assistance with operational, host integration, and support issues. While the digital dashboard concept is designed to follow a self-service model, information-resource owners often play a key role in planning ongoing support and administration of a digital dashboard infrastructure. Information-resource owners are often helpful in determining and discovering where the best data and information sources are located and in what format.
A digital dashboard is not just one system or one application. It is an integrated view of data from a variety of sources and even multiple applications. When evaluating what types of information to include on a digital dashboard, make sure to get a mix of all the items that workers use during the day.
Knowledge workers tend to keep large amounts of information on their hard drives. The most common items are e-mail and calendar items, items that never appear on traditional server portals. By adding Web Parts that display a user’s Internet Explorer home page or Outlook Today, it is easy to include personal information on a digital dashboard.
In today’s global environment, teams often work across organizational and geographic boundaries. Exchange Server helps capture what these teams learn and facilitates collaboration among dispersed teams. Because digital dashboards can incorporate information that is available in Outlook 2000, knowledge workers have access to the tools they need to share documents, discussions, tasks, and more.
Ways in which team members exchange information can vary from ad-hoc sharing of documents and discussions to the use of structured, process-based applications. You can include all of these elements in a digital dashboard.
In addition to capturing shared information, you can incorporate tools into your digital dashboards such as Exchange Conferencing Services, Chat Services, and Microsoft NetMeeting® conferencing software, which allows people to share applications and collaborate face-to-face over an intranet or the Internet.
Corporate information systems store much of the crucial information that can be included in a digital dashboard. These information systems are distinct from other resources because they are usually controlled by the IT group and have a highly organized system of maintenance and security. The presence of legacy data and the massive requirements placed on these systems makes corporate information resources difficult to deal with. However, the payoff for working with this information is a greater understanding of your business, markets, and customers.
Knowledge workers are often inundated with paper-based weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports, which are often from mainframe- or ERP-based systems. Not only are these paper-based reports expensive, but there is no intelligent way to filter the information based on business rules to alert people to problems or opportunities. If you move the data from these systems into applications such as Office 2000, you can provide interactive reporting by including the data in Web Parts on a digital dashboard.
Knowledge workers must stay abreast of world events, publications, legislative affairs, and competitors. Information resources can be a dynamic repository of hyperlinks, a news and stock ticker scrolling across the screen, a targeted news wire that covers a specific industry, or a bulletin board or issue forum.
Digital dashboards are based on Web standards, such as XML, DHTML, and Active Server Pages, so integrating external content is easy. Because of the broad availability and variety of external information, you may want to include a Web Part that displays a customization engine, such as the MSN home page.
Significant issues can arise when you are working with corporate information resources, which are often complex and housed in legacy systems.
One of the most common problems is information stored in multiple systems across a corporation. Depending on the type of information, you can use a number of tools to consolidate information across a range of systems. For example:
· Accounting, customer, and other line-of-business data. This type of data is often stored in a variety of systems. SQL Server 7.0 includes a feature called Data Transformation Services (DTS), which consolidates data from many modern and legacy databases, enabling better reporting and easier understanding of the business as a whole. This service can also reduce the expensive and time-consuming process of manually “rolling-up” financial reporting. For more information on DTS see the SQL Server 7.0 Data Warehousing Framework white paper. The following illustration shows the DTS Package Designer.
The DTS Package Designer provides a graphical environment for working with data in a variety of systems.
· Documents, discussions, and Web pages. This type of information is generally more dispersed than corporate data because it is generated in a more ad-hoc fashion. Microsoft Site Server 3.0 includes a sophisticated search mechanism that can search across documents, discussions, internal and external Web sites, and SQL Server databases. With this capability, knowledge workers can confidently search across the entire corporate memory. Once this type of cross-company catalog is established, it is easy to integrate it into a digital dashboard. For detailed information about the search functionality of Site Server, please see the white paper Implementing Search in the Enterprise.
As mentioned earlier, paper-based reporting is inadequate for detecting trends. The combination of Office 2000 and SQL Server allows knowledge workers to connect directly to business data and use Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) technology to perform sophisticated and flexible analyses through Microsoft Excel. For more information on MSOLAP, please see the white paper SQL Server 7.0 OLAP Services. The following illustration shows how data from a SQL Server data warehouse can be integrated into a digital dashboard view.
An Office Web Component running on a SQL Server 7.0 data warehouse in a digital dashboard.
Heterogeneous Collaborative Infrastructure
When knowledge workers need to communicate with subject matter experts or their teammates, a fractured collaboration and messaging system can get in the way.
E-mail messages, discussions, and shared document folders are an efficient way to communicate in today’s mobile and global environment. Microsoft Exchange Server provides a platform that can scale to support any organization’s messaging and collaboration needs in a consistent seamless fashion.
In addition, teams can use tools such as the Microsoft Team Folders Wizard to build and deploy team-based applications that are built on the same central Exchange-based e-mail infrastructure. This guarantees that knowledge workers get the resources they need to get their jobs done efficiently.
You can incorporate all of these features in the Web Parts that you include on your digital dashboards.
Lack of a Common Taxonomy
The most significant roadblock to effectively integrating information resources for digital dashboards is the lack of a common way of labeling or tagging information. Often, one business unit may call a metric by a name that differs substantially from the one that another department uses. A similar problem occurs when two departments refer to a metric by the same name, but are actually referring to two different metrics.
This is usually a cultural problem, but you can resolve it by working toward a common taxonomy.
Begin prototyping early with information resources. The development cost is fairly minimal, and a prototype can help expose holes and inconsistencies in the information, which you can fix while you’re constructing your digital dashboard solution. When presenting the prototype and findings to the stakeholder team, show the team members several options for business metrics and application targets. A group setting helps solidify the team agenda rather than allowing individuals to break off from the group focus.
This paper is not intended to provide a development methodology or outline a development approach for digital dashboards. Microsoft provides the Microsoft Solutions Framework as support for industry partners and customers who are looking to better understand these processes. Outlined here are some of the critical issues you should consider when developing digital dashboards.
There are two key roles in implementing digital dashboards. Depending on the amount of work required to identify the information resources, responsibilities can be shared across the roles. The first role focuses on finding, normalizing, and preparing information resources to be included in a digital dashboard. The second role focuses on developing and refining the four to five Web Parts that are digital dashboard components. Because the sample digital dashboards in the Digital Dashboard Resource Kit 2.0, provide a ready-made user interface and predefined styles that you can use to customize the look and feel of your digital dashboards, you can focus on delivering the correct content instead of constructing the user interface.
Development takes place through a series of steps. As you show prototypes and betas to users and stakeholders, you will define additional requirements, refine taxonomies, and reach a general consensus on your business priorities. Early in the process, pay close attention to the presentation of the information; later revisions will emphasize data issues.
A demonstration helps prepare your users for a digital dashboard deployment. It can facilitate the necessary cultural transformation and pave the way for the implementation of the technology. This is the first opportunity for stakeholders to compare their vision of the system to the needs of the end users. If end users agree with the vision, adopting the system becomes much easier. This process should include:
· An outline of the goals and long-term vision for the digital dashboard or dashboards.
· Support from the sponsor of the program, demonstrating his or her personal digital dashboard. In addition, the sponsor should make a statement underlining the importance of knowledge sharing to the company.
· A demonstration of a digital dashboard beta itself.
Do not expect that your first digital dashboard to solve your organization’s problems. Instead, focus on how a digital dashboard can assist knowledge workers in solving certain types of information delivery and collaboration problems. The goal is to stimulate thought about how the system might solve a variety of problems.
Throughout the design review process, continue to incorporate feedback from various groups, meet with stakeholders to review applications, explore reactions to the initial demonstration, and refine the Web Parts you’ve created for the digital dashboard. Be sure to conduct the design reviews in as way that keeps the stakeholders in agreement of design goals and business metrics.
Testing a digital dashboard solution is a little different than testing other applications. The most likely source of errors (and the most troublesome to detect and correct) is the quality and timeliness of information the digital dashboard displays. Therefore, it is critical to include subject matter experts as testers. Testers who are not subject matter experts usually cannot determine the difference between good information and bad information.
Digital dashboard applications have an enhanced user interface that combines familiar Office features with easy-to-use Web-browser-style controls. Users can click links to pages that allow them to customize the look and feel of their digital dashboards or add new Web Parts. Because digital dashboard applications incorporate so many familiar features, users do not need training to learn how to use them; for example, users can position Web Parts on a dashboard using a drag-and-drop operation.
System documentation is key to any development project, especially documenting how data and information are linked together. These data flow processes and their underlying data models must be thoroughly documented, including the timing of the information as it moves from data store to data store.
Include a feedback loop after you deploy your digital dashboard. This can consist simply of a public folder for discussions that is monitored by a team of information-resource owners, support people, the sponsor, and the development team. This serves not only as a support mechanism, but also as a learning device because it captures information about the benefits and disadvantages of your digital dashboard that you can use in later versions.
Digital dashboards are business solutions that help knowledge workers work together intelligently. The process of creating a digital dashboard can itself be a learning experience for an organization. By focusing information technology more precisely on the key strategic imperatives of a corporation, these tools allow information technology professionals to deliver more value to the organization.
For more information: See the Microsoft Digital Dashboard Home Page.
Spectria is a Microsoft solution provider specializing in the design, development & deployment of digital dashboards. “We build secure e-business solutions for the wired and wireless world” – allowing us to integrate digital dashboards into even the most complex corporate and e-business environments. For more information about partnering with Spectria, please contact Larry Cooper at (888) 516-9600 or visit www.spectria.com.
The information contained in this document represents the current view of Microsoft Corporation on the issues discussed as of the date of publication. Because Microsoft must respond to changing market conditions, it should not be interpreted to be a commitment on the part of Microsoft, and Microsoft cannot guarantee the accuracy of any information presented after the date of publication.
This document is for informational purposes only. MICROSOFT MAKES NO WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, IN THIS DOCUMENT.
© 2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Microsoft, MSN, NetMeeting, NetShow, Outlook, Windows Media, and Windows NT are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the U.S.A. and/or other countries.
Other company and product names mentioned herein may be the trademarks of their respective owners.
The names of companies, products, people, characters, and/or data mentioned herein are fictitious and are in no way intended to represent any real individual, company, product, or event, unless otherwise noted.
 The Road Not Taken, Bronwyn Fryer, Inc. Magazine Technology #2, 1999