Dashboards are the most basic way that most employees at an organization interact with their BI tool. Generally, only a few employees interact daily with the background processes of their business's BI solution; it just doesn't make a lot of sense to have every user poking around back there.
The majority of employees at most organizations don't need to perform data analysis directly. They don't need to connect to software through integrations or transform their raw data into actionable data. They do need data, though, and dashboards are how they get it.
BI systems are extremely valuable for the sort of analysis that they can provide to their users. With a BI tool, businesses can find novel trends in their data, make new connections, and find relationships that might have been invisible.
This sort of data analysis is valuable for businesses, but for most organizations, it's not the most valuable thing that a BI tool can do, or even the most common. At many businesses, the value of a BI tool comes from how well it monitors and reports on their business operations.
At many businesses, their operational data is spread out across different software solutions. There's no way for them to get a centralized view of their operations, since the data that they'd need is in different tools. This also means they can't analyze that data, since it all exists separately.
With a BI tool, businesses can finally centralize all of their data. Now that all of their data is in the same place, they can start to build a coherent view of all of their business operations, instead of trying to manage their operations by just looking at a few disconnected metrics.
For instance, a manufacturing company may track its incoming raw material with one tool, the activity of its assembly line with a second, their production numbers and shipping data with a third, its financial data with a fourth, and its marketing tool with a fifth.
Without a BI tool, it'd be impossible for this business to get a centralized view of its operations. Even with just five tools, it'd take a huge amount of work to get useful data out of all of them, and by the time everything was connected and visualized, the data would be out of date.
Now, this business can use a BI tool to connect all of its operational software. They can finally view their operations in a high-level, connected way. They can analyze the data from their entire pipeline at once, which would be completely impossible without a BI tool supporting and connecting everything.
This business could even build a dashboard that contains all of their operational data from all of their sources, so that they could get a sense of their operations at a glance. In many BI tools, this dashboard could even update in real time, so that it's a real, active view of their business operations.
A dashboard of this type is called an operational dashboard. It's a type of dashboard that's meant to give its users real-time insight into actual business performance. These dashboards generally make up the core of most businesses' data strategy.
Operational dashboards are the most common type of dashboard used by the average worker, since they're the best type of dashboard for informing day-to-day and hour-by-hour work. They provide real-time information about business performance that's very valuable to frontline and low-level employees who are actually doing that work.
To build a data strategy that makes good use of operational dashboards, businesses need to know three things - how operational dashboards are different from other dashboards, what sort of situations they're best for, and what sort of metrics and visualizations make them the most effective.
How Are Operational Dashboards Different?
Operational dashboards are one of the three main types of dashboards. They're used for monitoring performance metrics that are important to the day-to-day operations of either the business as a whole, or a more specific aspect of business operations.
Think of the dashboard in a car. The different gauges on a car dashboard inform the driver exactly how the car is performing at the given moment. It would be infeasible for the driver to monitor metrics like miles per hour or gas tank capacity themselves, so the dashboard collects all the data the driver would need and presents it in a compact, simple way.
If there's some change in a metric that needs the driver's attention, it'll be highlighted on the dashboard hopefully before it becomes a real problem. If the driver makes an input that changes some metric, they can see how that metric changes based on that input in real time. In the same way that a driver uses a dashboard to operate their car safely and effectively, employees use their dashboards to operate their business.
The other two main types of dashboard, strategic and analytical dashboards, are much less focused on providing real-time operational data. Strategic dashboards provide insight into how current performance towards broad strategic goals compare with past performance, and analytical dashboards provide an opportunity to drill down, filter, and sort data in novel ways.
If an operational dashboard is like a car's dashboard, then a strategic dashboard is the car's GPS. They help to make sure that the car is going in the right direction and inform if the business has taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Analytical dashboards are closest to a mechanic's set of diagnostic tools, where they can use the data that's been collected to see where problems lie, find inefficiencies and errors, and hopefully discover solutions to problems.
A good data strategy will include each of these three types of dashboard, but for monitoring and acting on the most basic, day-to-day operations of a business, dashboard builders can't really do much better than an operational dashboard.
When Are Operational Dashboards Useful?
Operational dashboards are best used for monitoring how different aspects of a business are performing in real-time. Often, they're thought of as only being useful for tracking physical operations, like assembly lines and supply chains, but they can be used for all sorts of business operations.
For example, a sales team can use an operational dashboard for tracking their sales success as it happens. They can plug into things like accounting and POS software to see exactly how sales are going in the real world.
These sorts of dashboards are at their most useful when people viewing the dashboard can change their workflows, prioritize different tasks, and shift their goals based on the information they see on the dashboard, and actually make a meaningful, immediate impact on business operations.
In an extremely basic example, a business might use an operational dashboard to monitor their assembly line. Based on the data from the operational dashboard, a foreman might see that they're making too much of Part A, and not enough of Part B.
With knowledge of the part imbalance from the operational dashboard, the foreman can move immediately to fix the problem. Without this sort of real-time intelligence, the part imbalance would continue, and the first time that anyone on the manufacturing team would find out about it would be when it became a problem.
Operational dashboards help lower-level managers and frontline employees react quickly to unanticipated changes in their business metrics, solving problems before they even become problems.
Even in situations where users can't necessarily react quickly to the changes that they see on the screen, operational dashboards are useful just as a useful store of information for low-level and frontline employees. It's a good practice to make operational dashboards visible to as many people as possible, so that they can use the information on it to guide their actions.
Operational dashboards aren't just useful to lower-level employees. Higher-level employees, managers, and executives can make good use of operational dashboards as well. At this level, operational dashboards are less focused on one specific aspect of business operations, and monitor business health more generally.
These sorts of general operations dashboards can look very similar to strategic dashboards, but unlike strategic dashboards, operational dashboards aren't worried about goal attainment. They just tell things how they are, which can be a valuable quality in itself.
In short, operational dashboards are valuable at every level of an organization, since they help businesses to have a better understanding of their current processes and how their operations are going in real time.
What Sort of Visualizations Are Useful on Operational Dashboards?
The most useful visualizations on operational dashboards are ones that highlight one key figure - the metric as it exists in real time. As such, operational dashboards make good use of scorecards, gauges, and line graphs to inform viewers about the real-time state that their operations are in.
Scorecards and gauges are especially useful on operational dashboards, since they cut away all the information about a metric that isn't useful for real-time analysis and billboard one key number that represents that metric.
Line graphs can show how a given metric has trended over time. They're especially useful for metrics where every rise and fall has some importance. Think of situations like stock price, where even minor fluctuations in a metric's performance can have outsized effects.
An operational dashboard is usually only going to have a few metrics, the things that are most important for monitoring business performance. A business might collect dozens or hundreds of different metrics that track business operations, but their dashboards should only highlight the half dozen or so most important.
Interactivity isn't generally very important in operational dashboards. It's useful to have things like drill-downs, filters, and data sorting, but they're not essential for an effective operational dashboard. In fact, building too much interactivity can be harmful for the dashboard's overall usefulness.
In many cases, operational dashboards will be presented to users in situations where interactivity isn't an option. Either users don't have the credentials to interact, or they view the dashboards in contexts where interactivity is limited, like on public monitors or within an embedded solution.
If the metrics that a user needs to access are hidden behind a clickthrough or drill down, they won't be able to get to them if they can't interact with the dashboard. It's best practice when building operational dashboards to assume that the end user won't be able to interact with them.
Operational Dashboards - The Base Of Any Data Strategy
While every type of dashboard has its uses, operational dashboards are the most generically useful of the three types. Any team and department can make use of them, and they're useful at every level of governance.
Low-level and frontline employees can use operational dashboards to guide their day-to-day operations and quickly solve business problems that crop up, and executives value operational dashboards as a clear snapshot of business health.
These are just a handful of the use cases for an operational dashboard. In the same way that every car needs a dashboard so that its driver can properly operate it, every business, and every team and department within that business, need operational dashboards to properly navigate their business operations.
For more on the types of dashboard and when they're useful, check out our guide to the three main dashboard types. We also have guides to the best BI software for dashboarding and the best BI software for data visualization.