Mashboards: Better, Faster Decisions at the Web-BI Intersection

Making better business decisions is all about understanding what’s happening today and then properly applying that knowledge to improve what will likely happen tomorrow. Because business leaders want this improved power, we’ve recently seen a resurgence of interest and coverage in predictive analytics.

This interest is aided substantially because of IBM’s acquisition of SPSS, but also because of the growth in R, the very popular open source statistical analysis language and tool (which is being successfully commercialized by Revolution Analytics).

Surely the potential uses of statistical modeling for predictive purposes are increasing, consistent with the growth of data in general. The growth in the R community and the rise of its usefulness is truly remarkable. Still, if making better business decisions remains the primary goal, most organizations — large and small — could benefit from another modern, even simpler and more mainstream business intelligence tool: the mashboard.

The Right Stuff

The term itself, “mashboard”, is a combination of the word “dashboard” and “mashup.” Intuitively, this makes sense. Deceivingly, though, the “mashboard” may well end up being the most important intersection of Web and BI technologies, providing end-users with what they have always wanted — the right information in the right format at the right time to make better decisions right now.

To define “mashboard,” I searched a number of the best business intelligence sites. I found an important post by TDWI’s Wayne Eckerson and an ensuing discussion about this topic. Eckerson does an admirable job beginning to define “mashboard” with the following:

“Mashboards enable power users to select from predefined report “parts” (e.g., charts, tables, selectors) and drag and drop them onto a WYSIWYG dashboard canvas. Before you can create a Mashboard, IT developers need to create reports using the vendor’s standard report authoring environment. The “report parts” are often self-contained pieces of XML code — or gadgets — that are wired to display predefined sets of data or can be easily associated with data from a semantic layer. Power users can apply filters and selectors to the gadgets without coding.”

I think this definition misses with regard to the use of external data within a mashboard. “Digital ‘dashboards’ may be laid out to track the flows inherent in the business processes that they monitor,” according to Wikipedia. “Graphically, users may see the high-level processes and then drill down into low level data.”

Wikipedia defines “mashup” as “digital media content containing any or all of text, graphics, audio, video and animation drawn from pre-existing sources, to create a new derivative work.”

This provides a start to a combined definition. However, to advance the complete definition of “mashboard” and make it relevant to any business process it might seek to advance, it’s necessary to include some important concepts specific to business intelligence and Web 2.0. Following is a more complete description that combines and extends.

5 Crucial Elements

A Mashboard

  1. presents information pertinent to a business process or set of business processes that is managed and measured quantitatively, usually in the form of metrics or key performance indicators;
  2. enables deeper exploration of the process-oriented information, to unveil more analytic detail as required, commonly in the form of hyperlinks or pivoting of data elements (known as “drill down”);
  3. includes a variety of information-appropriate visualization techniques, including graphs, charts, maps, “widgets,” tables and cross-tabular tables, each of which become the starting point for necessary exploration;
  4. combines contextually relevant, Web-based information from pre-existing sources to enable superior total visibility and insight on the process being managed; and
  5. logically joins the quantitative, process-oriented information with the contextually relevant, Web-based information (at the presentation layer, requiring no more than power user skills) to ensure they are aligned and made meaningful to the decision-maker, shortening the path from data to dashboard to decision.

It is all five combined elements of this definition that stand to make the mashboard a mainstream component of the BI toolset, designed and deployed to enable better, faster decisions. This is because on the spectrum of data usage, from “responsive” to “predictive,” mashboards are in the center — more capable and timely than simple dashboards and reports (which display historic information and enable “responsive” decisions to be made) but not endeavoring to project the data quantitatively forward into tomorrow (using a statistical model to help derive a prediction and decision).

A Business-Process-Centric Mashboard

In this sense, a mashboard is all about making the most of the here and now, using a wider set of contextually relevant information to do so. For this reason, the mashboard can improve business decisions across the widest array of processes than probably any other single BI tool.

(click image to enlarge)

Here’s an example of a mashboard in action, designed to help create a broad informational view of a sales forecasting business process, complete with all five elements of the mashboard definition offered earlier.

This mashboard combines relational data displayed in an interactive, 3-D bar chart (displaying sales results by stage), a speedometer gauge (displaying sales revenue results), and a cross-tabular chart (for comparing and pivoting various regions with month and quarter).

It also happens to include externally managed data from a variety of sources: the histogram has been imported, with data and charting provided by a statistical analysis tool; and the map, news and social media feeds are all URL-addressable (which should be insertable here at the presentation level). Each of these data objects maintains its link back to its original data source, so refreshes occur at defined intervals.

In total, the combination of quantitative, interactive (drillable) managed data presented alongside external information creates a contextual relevance that would not occur otherwise. Bringing the right data elements together in a business-process-centric “best-practice” mashboard helps deliver more complete information and insight about what’s happening right now — which drives better business decisions. I’m looking forward to the mashboard that belongs on my desktop.

Brian Gentile is CEO of Jaspersoft

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