During the first few decades that businesses were making use of computers, the amount of data stored was a tiny fraction of what it is today, and yet it still was an overwhelming amount. Corporations had little choice but to store that data using whatever mechanisms were available at the time — initially flat files, and eventually relational databases. These mechanisms may have been adequate for storing the growing amount of data, and printing out reams of it, but they did not make it easy for the business managers to interpret the data and use it for seeing trends and making decisions for the future. In other words, business owners found it difficult to see the forest for the trees — regardless of how many trees were chopped down and turned into computer printouts.
In time, programmers became quite adept at writing reports that summarized that business information, and made early attempts at converting the numerical data into graphs and charts, which non-technical business people usually find much easier to interpret. This trend continued as corporate computing and data moved from centralized mainframes to desktop computers, and end-users gained greater control over how their data was organized and represented, usually in spreadsheet programs, such as Microsoft Excel. Then along came the Web, and consequently that data distribution went global, as far-flung corporate offices found that they needed to share data and graphical representations of it over the Internet.
Despite the tremendous amount of progress made in the burgeoning fields of information management, business decision-making, and business intelligence applications, organizations worldwide continue to struggle with how to best utilize multimedia for representing information that would otherwise be buried in databases and spreadsheets. Moreover, in this new era of dynamic Web pages, smartphones, and video games, users have much greater expectations as to the attractiveness of anything multimedia, and their ability to interact with it.
Dashboards and Data
When one hears the term "business dashboards", one might visualize the mahogany dashboards of corporate luxury cars; while the term "business objects" might invoke the image of lethargic company bigwigs slowly ossifying on the top floor of an office building. But actually the terms refer to far more useful things. The latter term is typically used in the context of computer programming — specifically, combining business (non-interface) data and functionality on that data, within reusable components. The former term is less well defined, but "business dashboard" is generally recognized to mean an interactive graphical representation of business data that allows the viewer to visually analyze how changes to one or more variables would affect the outcome. These are often referred to as "what-if scenarios", and can be utilized for spotting trends, predicting future changes, and generally getting an overview of complex information. For instance, a dashboard may show a pie chart of sales by region, and allow the user to move a slider backward and forward, through the calendar quarters, to reveal a developing trend.
Business Objects is also the name of a French company that developed Xcelsius, a software application that generates dashboards using data from Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (Excel 2003, 2007, and XP), XML-compliant databases, SOAP-based Web services, Flash variables, and their proprietary "server". The company was bought by SAP, in 2007, and rebranded as SAP BusinessObjects. The product is available in three editions — Xcelsius Present, Engage, and Engage Server — and I will be examining the second one. Its supported platforms are Windows XP, Vista, and Server 2003. As befits a French products, it is available in 13 languages.
On the product comparison page, you see that the Xcelsius Present edition only contains basic data presentation components and the ability to export to Microsoft Office and Adobe PDF files. Consequently, that edition would be of limited use to the majority of organizations. Far more valuable is the Engage edition, which contains dashboard components, can export to Web pages and Flash video files, and can support a single live data connection to an XML database or Web service. Engage Server allows multiple such connections, as well as ODBC data sources, and several other features more appropriate for large enterprises.
To get a clearer idea of what exactly are business dashboards — and their potential for representing information so that knowledge can be gleaned from it as quickly as possible — it would be helpful to look at some illustrative examples. The following screenshots — created using Xcelsius Engage and available on the website linked above — demonstrate how one can use dashboards not only for highly graphical reporting, but also to allow real-time visualization and analysis.
The first of the two examples on the demos page represents a projected world sales model, designed to allow managers to "forecast their annual sales and marketing expense for various world regions by modifying the projected sales growth for each region. Executives can further analyze regional results by comparing their five-year annual sales trends to their top two competitors, and by viewing relative market presence for all regions."
Underneath the pie chart, is a slider labeled "FY07 Projected sales growth: USA", which makes it possible for the user to interactively adjust the sales growth rate from the default of 10.50 percent, up to a very optimistic 30 percent, and down to a more realistic -10 percent. With each adjustment in one direction or another, the slices of the pie chart change size correspondingly, as do the values reflected in the bar and line charts to the right of it.
The second example is intended to facilitate competitive analysis across three business areas — cost structure, market share, and growth trends. The three buttons at the top are like navigation tabs on a Web page, and display three completely unique dashboards, shown below. The first one shows the revenues for five different companies, plus the industry total, for 13 different income categories, selectable from the drop-down list box. Clicking on one of the five radio buttons at the bottom of the dashboard, filters the data to a particular quarter, or all combined.
The market share dashboard below includes the same bi-quarter break down, and also illustrates how easy it is to produce colorful and attractive pie charts.
This final example demonstrates line charts within a dashboard, as well as the ability to use checkboxes to enable and disable particular data sets. In this case, I have enabled the data for only three companies, in addition to the industry totals.
Naturally, one can create even more sophisticated dashboards than those provided above. These examples are only intended for showing what is possible.
Take It for a Test Drive
If you would like to try out Xcelsius Engage yourself, at no charge, then you can take advantage of their 30-day trial period. Simply click on the yellow "Try" button on any one of the Xcelsius Web pages linked above; fill out the contact information, including a valid email address; and you will receive a link to download the latest version (18.104.22.168, as of this writing). When you receive the message from the company, download the installation file, launch it, and go through the self-explanatory steps to set up the program. As noted earlier, you will need to have some sort of data source installed, such as Excel XP.
Anytime that you run Xcelsius during the first 30 days, unless you have purchased and entered a license number, you will receive a warning message.
The Xcelsius Engage workspace is shown in the screenshot below.
Space limitations in this article do not allow us to get into the details of how to create your own dashboards. To learn how to do so, first read through the online help information, to become familiar with the different toolbars and panels within the workspace, as well as the terminology specific to dashboards and Xcelsius.
While we can never be certain as to the future of data representation programs and other technologies, it is quite obvious that the trend is toward greater interactivity between the end-user and the data, and a continued push for distributed data in computing over the Web, with less lock-in to desktop applications and proprietary data formats.