The old dream of dashboards has new life. Here's how to make them work for you
Every 15 seconds, a new set of charts telling the story of Verizon Communications' performance flash onto a giant LCD screen in CIO Shaygan Kheradpir's office - everything from the percentage of customer calls resolved by voice systems and how many repair trucks are in the field to the resolution of IT systems problems. There are 44 screen-shots in total, and they cycle continuously, all day long, every day. Kheradpir has seen them so often that they are burned into his memory. He can tell at a glance when the lines on the charts aren't trending the way they're supposed to. The system works much the same way for 300 to 400 managers at every level of the company, says Kheradpir.
But when Kheradpir first installed the system at the telecom giant in January 2002 (shortly after becoming CIO), he didn't know that the fortunes of these dashboards had been trending down for two decades at the company. After preparing a rudimentary set of about 12 different business metrics for the private consumption of Lawrence Babbio, vice chairman and telecom president of Verizon, Kheradpir marched into Babbio's office, turned on an LCD monitor and asked him what he thought.
"He said: 'This is great. Keep going'," recalls Kheradpir. "But then he surprised me by saying that Verizon [and its predecessors] had been doing this for 20 years, and it had always failed before. That was a cue to me to make sure that I course-corrected on this thing as I went along."
Babbio was right to be sceptical. Systems designed to give upper management a data-driven view of what's really happening in their organizations have been around - and have failed - for much longer than 20 years; they used to be called decision support systems. They failed because the information was difficult and expensive to gather, and therefore shallow and dated. And they failed because the systems reinforced the traditional hierarchy of information in companies, in which top managers hoarded all the important performance information and kept it from the people who could take quick action on the numbers: line managers and employees.
Of course, line managers and employees did their share of damage too. If they had information, it was easy enough to conceal or delay that which reflected poorly on them. "Information is power, and that's been the case ever since there was information," says Laurie Orlov, a vice president of Forrester Research.
Two major shifts have changed the dynamics of information hoarding and given CIOs the chance to finally make these systems work. First, of course, is the Internet; it's no longer prohibitively expensive to gather information that is timely and distribute it widely. The second shift is the responsibility that executives in public companies have, after the Enron disaster and the advent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, to know about problems brewing down in the depths of their organization. Dashboards can give top managers insight. "Ideally, the dashboard would surface something before it became a material event so they can fix it," says Orlov.
Thus, despite the futility of Verizon's previous dashboards, the stage was set for Kheradpir's effort. "No one argued against the case for dashboards," he says. But the design was controversial. Different people at different levels had ideas on what metrics mattered and who should see them. The system needed to be capable of serving a vast audience, yet it could not be too complex or too simplistic.
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