Every week day, Brad Jones, chief executive officer at Retail Management Solutions - a technology provider to the retail pharmacy industry - logs onto his online business application from NetSuite and opens his dashboard.

From one browser window, Jones can control and manage his entire Washington State-based company.

"I no longer use anything other than that [dashboard]," Jones explained. "It's pretty limitless."

Dashboards are customized graphical interfaces that deliver real-time data in the form of alerts, charts, gauges, spreadsheets and tables. Most dashboards are browser-based and have the ability to drill down into information for a more detailed view.

In one day, Jones' dashboard alerted him to an employee who needed a review, timesheet records that he had to approve and phone calls that he needed to make before the close of business.

He even has headline links from CNN Money's Web site fed into his dashboard and shortcuts to other Web sites - such as his corporate online bank accounts - along with a summary of his company's financial data.

Jones was so impressed with his dashboard that he had all 20 employees in his company trained on them. Now all his team members have their own personalized dashboards.

"It's an efficient and effective way to manage your day," said Jones. "From here you can do anything you do on a regular basis - it's all tied in here."

As recently as five years ago, the majority of people using dashboards were high-level executives and information technology departments. And most of those dashboards were not much more than a static report or snapshot of the company's key performance indicators. Today, the demand for dashboards is growing as more features and more metrics become available.

"It's really glorified reporting, stored in detail, made more palpable," explained Shaun Sullivan, chief technology officer for Blackbaud Inc., a business applications software provider for nonprofits. "It's more than just a rollup for key performance indicators for executives now."

Dashboards are becoming so popular that over half of the respondents to a Computerworld survey listed dashboards as the most crucial business intelligence tool. From a survey of their 2005 Premier 100 IT Leaders conference attendees, Computerworld found that 53 percent of the 200 respondents felt that deploying dashboards was their company's top business intelligence priority.

In a separate survey, AMR Research found a similar emphasis on the increasing demand for dashboards. The survey asked 400 IT buyers about their current adoption and spending plans for dashboards and scorecards - a similar management interface to a dashboard, except that it only displays key performance indicators.

Of the 400 respondents, 26 percent claimed that they were using either a dashboard or a scorecard, while 25 percent more were evaluating whether to purchase one, and 8 percent were implementing one of the two management devices.

"The demand has really spiked for these dashboards," said Eric Parsons, a product planner with Microsoft's Great Plains team. "[Customers] don't want real raw data. They want to summarize data and be able to define metrics to see the information - inside and outside the range."

So, why are dashboards so popular?

Users say that the key to the dashboard's popularity is their ability to drill into any data, not just key performance indicators data, for more detailed information, and therefore accountability. The dashboard has helped companies move away from relying on the financial department to run spreadsheet reports, and has given managers more control over their departments' finances.

"It made my day more efficient by well over an hour a day," said Jones.

Dashboards also provide more reliable sources for figures than a spreadsheet report.

Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) conducted a 1997 study on 23 operational spreadsheets with more than 150 rows. Errors were found in 21 of the spreadsheets, or 91 percent, making the bottom-line values off by more than 5 percent. In another study of over 21 British companies conducted the same year by KPMG Consulting, 92 percent of the spreadsheets dealing with tax issues had significant errors and 75 percent had significant accounting errors.

One reason that spreadsheets can give such erroneous numbers is that they are linked on a cell-by-cell basis. Therefore, if a user changes a number in one workbook, it does not automatically update the other linked sheets or workbooks. But dashboards pull all their information from a number of different financial databases and link them together into one source using online analytical processing technology. Having one integrated source from which to pull reports and see data makes the information much more reliable.

After this foundation of accountability and reliability is established, however, each dashboard becomes very distinct.

"We can tailor it to look exactly like our Web site," Jones said. "It gives the employees a feeling of ownership. The look and feel looks like it's designed and created by our company."

The customization capabilities have opened up the market for dashboards to a variety of users. Not only can a dashboard be customized to fit a company's specific look and feel today, but each individual user can then personalize their dashboard further to fit their role and personality.

"No two dashboards are alike," said Sean Rollings, senior director of product marketing at NetSuite.

Dashboards are so transformable today, with various graphical styles and numerous metrics, that even people in the same position can have entirely different looking and structured dashboards, Rollings added. The interface, for those who don't want each employee endlessly reconfiguring their dashboards, can also be locked entirely or by metrics or graphics to ensure a specific look or that certain figures are always present.

Of course, each dashboard developer offers different looks and structures.

NetSuite offers alerts sent via e-mail or to personal digital assistants, and has an RSS feed that links users' dashboards to Web sites of their choosing, whereas OutlookSoft links data to unstructured sources like e-mails or a Word document.

Blackbaud allows its users to write and link notes to their numbers, and Solver Inc. has a graphical slider to use for forecasting finances. No two developers offer the exact same set of features, but most are continuing to offer additional features and can add enhancements by request.

"What you'll see is the enhancement of the capabilities of dashboards," said Chet Friedman, senior director of product management for OutlookSoft Corp. "You will be able to present information with the capability to do variance analysis and predictions, have algorithms to do predictions, and, in addition, as much of the traditional information as you want."

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