Last week Mike Greenfield wrote about real time data and dashboards, concluding that “no, you don’t need a real-time data dashboard*”. I disagree with this conclusion and you might think that since I work for Geckoboard, makers of such real-time data dashboards, that I’m going to tell you that he’s completely wrong and everyone needs one. Well, I’m not, they don’t and I agree with most of his points. However, I don’t think that real-time dashboards are the problem and we do know a lot about why they’re useful. In this article I’m going to give examples of how they are useful to people other than growth hacker’s, which he caveats might find them useful. I’m also going to suggest that a focus on just trend data as his suggestion of doing away with real-time dashboards implies, is just as dangerous as a focus on the purely real-time.
A balanced and mixed data set is what’s needed
Trend data is important, but so is real-time data that is more directly operational. Any disproportionate focus on any one type of data, trend or real-time, isn’t a good idea. For trends, it can be a problem because when we later recall events we lose the nuances in them that we appreciated at the time. By just looking at trend data we neglect to fully appreciate and understand the multitude of actions that lead to that trend, inferring some over-simplified explanations for it. This can come back to bite us when we try to repeat our previous successes, but aren’t able to because we’ve forgotten the specific actions and circumstances that made them successful the first time around. Just looking at trends and thinking strategically misses the opportunity for operational improvements.
Real-time data is useful in dashboards and not just for growth hackers
Also, real-time data is not just useful to growth hackers and IT ops as Mike suggests. In other time sensitive roles, real-time data can alert you to a build up in queues in a shop, so you know when to add more till staff to avoid losing sales. It can do similar for those handling calls in call centres or managing IT support desks. For a logistics company in can show bottlenecks in order fulfillment and for those in lean manufacturing, implementing just-in-time techniques demand real-time knowledge of stock levels and requirements. It’s also useful for the agile developers pushing a change to their apps so that they can see the reduction in response times and I could go on. We have customers doing all of these things with real-time data and a dashboard and who are doing so successfully.
However, real-time data is not just useful to those where time is of the essence. Just because the data is in real-time doesn’t mean you have to look at it every ten minutes. Having a real-time data dashboard displayed on a TV screen as a wallboard can help to give focus to your staff. It shows clearly what the important aspects are for your business, such that it was felt necessary to put them up front and centre for all to see. They can also collate data from multiple sources so you don’t have to chase around for them to produce a report. It can encourage casual conversations about the metrics leading to a better understanding of them. Ultimately, it can raise the profile of data within your business and help you to move towards a more data-driven culture.
So I conclude that I don’t think the dashboard is the problem. You probably do in fact need that real-time data driven dashboard and they aren’t just for growth hackers. However, you might need better, more appropriate and balanced metrics - those about the here and now and those showing trends. However, you should avoid vanity metrics and certainly give your board some real thought before you set it up.