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The Dashboard Fallacy

Back in the 1990’s, Executive Information Systems or Executive Decision Support Systems, better known as “dashboards”, were all the rage. Software vendors and consultants (including yours truly) heralded the dawn of a new age of management where senior executives could manage complex and far flung operations via a panel of “key performance indicators” updated in “real time” with “drill down” capability that would enable them to pinpoint “root causes” and take corrective actions in a timely manner. The practitioners spawned a dog’s breakfast of buzz phrases, such as “Push button Management”, “Business Pulse Management”, and “Management by Speed of Thought”.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of companies large and small embarked on ambitious projects to define measures and install software, many at staggering costs. And yet, while some systems did deliver measurable benefits and value, very few if any lived up to the hype. As the head of a large global pharmaceutical R&D division once lamented to me, “we spent two years and more than $10 million on this system, and I am still the last person in the company to find out when something goes wrong”.

After some investigation, we found out why he was experiencing this problem. The answer was simple – lower level people, the ones on the “front line”, were not entering data (in this case data on the progress and results of R&D projects) into the system in a timely fashion. And no amount of threats, incentives, cajoling, or pleading could get them to do so. People continually found ways to delay or “massage” the data before entering it. “I have to double check to make sure it is right”, was the most frequent excuse. “I need to make sure the data is in the right context, or it will just be confusing”, was another.

When I asked one of the clinical project managers why people were not updating the system as they were supposed to, she said, “I don’t need a computer to tell me when patient enrollment is falling behind schedule. And I really don’t need my boss asking me about it until I can offer him an explanation, or better yet, a solution.” I have since spoken with dozens of other practitioners and executives who have all had similar experiences.

The problem is that the basic premise of the dashboard – everyone knows everything at the same time – is fatally flawed. No self-respecting worker or business person wants to be blindsided with questions or comments on things that they are supposed to be doing or managing, especially when they come from bosses. Most people want others, especially bosses, to see them as competent, knowledgeable, “on the ball”, etc. It is therefore important to know more about your job than anyone else, and to know it first.

Recently, dashboards have returned to vogue, with companies now touting “Business Intelligence” systems. One purveyor told me that the EIS/EDSS systems failed in the old days because the technology was “cumbersome”. But now, he asserts, technology has removed the old barriers and the promise of the executive dashboard can finally be fully realized.

I, for one, do not believe a word of it. I don’t think systems that enable bosses to second guess workers will ever be fully successful, especially if they continue to rely on workers’ participation to make them useful. Systems that put critical information, metrics, and analytics in the hands of the workers themselves, however, are far more useful in the long run. And today’s technology does indeed make that possible much more easily, and at far less cost than ever before.

© QuakerSmith Capital, LLC October 2016 All rights reserved

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