According to most accounts, the concept of the digital dashboard came out of Microsoft — from Bill Gates himself. Gates, looking for a way to monitor his company’s performance on a daily basis, authorized an internal development project to consolidate a host of key operating results that he would be able to see all at once on his computer screen.

While the term “digital dashboard” isn’t used as much as it was six years ago, the technology has nevertheless gained popularity. And while large companies have had access to them for some time, SMBs are now getting a chance to use dashboards, connecting them to various internal databases and applications to understand, on an up-to-the-minute basis, what’s going right and what’s going wrong in their operations.

Digital dashboards most often provide business intelligence (BI), which could be any kind of information: financial, supply chain, operations or healthcare data; data about inventory turns; ROI metrics; accounts receivable and payable information; monthly sales; or sales and production targets.

The benefits are many. Obviously users see piles of critically useful information about their day-to-day operations on one screen. Second, they can use the interface to click and find out more information, says Shadan Malik, software architect at Iviz Group, the Troy, Mich.-based makers of iDashboard. “Before, you had to go through stacks of spreadsheets, and you couldn’t drill down.”

Now, for example, an SMB can check on its sales numbers in different cities in Canada. If the president wants to see all the accounting data for a particular city, he/she will simply click on it and be taken right to the correct – live – data.

But the technology is not just for presidents and management types. It’s rapidly penetrating to the lower rungs of an organization.

Many firms with sales teams require a full-time person to create spreadsheets and distribute them so their salespeople can check individual goals and results. With a digital dashboard (and the links built into to the back-end applications, of course) this process can be automated. Salespeople don’t have to wait until Wednesday to see the sales data as of Sunday.

Companies can also use digital dashboards to present data back to their customers, allowing those customers to check such things as order status.

Rob Griebel, general manager at dashboard technology provider Noetix Corp., of Bellevue, Wash., says one of his clients provides outsourced call centre services and often makes calls on behalf of a customer as part of a marketing campaign. During the process, the call centre will capture a lot of data, so it uses the dashboard to feed information about a campaign’s progress back to its clients.

Griebel says while the price of your typical digital dashboard is coming down, it is also becoming easier to implement. As a result, many companies just sign up for training from vendor like Noetix and create dashboards on their own — a definite cost-cutter.

The biggest implementation hurdle isn’t the training. “Usually the most challenging part of the whole thing is just understanding what their actual requirements are, and then where the data is,” says Griebel. “Laying that out on the dashboard is typically relatively straightforward if you know what data is needed and where it is in the systems they’re running.”

Griebel tells clients, especially smaller ones, not to link too much data too soon to a digital dashboard. Too big a scope can be daunting. They’re better off choosing an area where they can have some quick success. He’s learned from experience that picking something narrow and focused and getting it in the hands of users is a good way to quickly demonstrate benefits and gain employee buy-in. This just encourages more dashboard application linkage — and it makes justifying the technology to management a whole lot easier.

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