Beware the Dashboard?


dashboardTechnology is our friend.  Technology is also our enemy.  It’s value neutral, so how we choose to use it, and whether it becomes friend or foe, is determined largely by who we are and what we believe.

Perhaps nothing more encapsulates this friend-foe dichotomy of technology than the dashboard.  It has become increasingly popular for companies to market dashboard-like software tools to executives, often tied to the multitude of data housed  in the enterprise as part of the “big data” experience.  For good reason:  the dashboard suggests that myriad data about what is going on in an organization or industry at any given time – market share, social media mentions, product sales, for example — can be viewed in one place, and in the context of data about myriad other events taking place in real time in the organization.  It’s neat, clean, and offers unusual visibility for the executive.

Great idea, right?

Yes, and no (did you know I was going to say that?)

Good, yes, in that you have a digest of data in one place so they are easily accessible and you are viewing them contemporaneously with other data about events important to the organization.

Bad, however, in that you have a digest of data in one place so they are easily accessible and you are viewing them contemporaneously with other data about events important to the organization.

How could this be a threat? How could something that has the promise of real-time, convenient visibility be bad for the organization?

Off the bat, I can think of three things:

  1. The inputs for the metrics represented on the dashboard may not be relevant to the ultimate validity of the metric and therefore the quantitative authority implied by a graph that is being constantly tracked may mislead the executive;
  2. The metrics themselves may not be relevant to the ultimate success of the organization and so have the potential to crowd out more relevant information from the executive’s view and mindshare; and
  3. Increasingly constructing a view of the organization by way of metrics can incrementally transform the executive’s notion of management and leadership – most notably that of managing metrics in place of people.

The first two issues could be addressed potentially by a careful, constant process of testing, justifying, and reevaluating the importance of the metrics and inputs underpinning the dashboard.  This may go a long way to separate the judicious use of the dashboard verses use that is not judicious and therefore dangerous.

The third issue, however, is potentially more destructive because it is generally more subtle and insidious.  In this case, the medium is the message – symbolically, the dashboard increasingly becomes THE view of the organization.  Move the needles on the dashboard and the organization improves and, hence, the job of management and leadership appears to have been improved.

I’m not suggesting that C-suite executives who might use a dashboard as a management tool would necessarily succumb to rely upon the dashboard as their only means of accessing the health of their organizations or the sole input for decisions (although some might be tempted).  But I am suggesting that its value could easily be overemphasized.

In his 1993 book, Technopoly, Neil Postman opens with a legend that was originally related by Plato in 370 BC.  It’s a tale about an Egyptian King named Thamus and a god named Theuth whom King Thamus is entertaining.  Theuth is an inventor of many things, and among his inventions he is presenting to King Thamus is the invention of writing.

Theuth proudly touts, about writing, that

“here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve the wisdom and memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.”

King Thamus analyzes Theuth’s invention.  After some reflection, he counsels Thamus ,

“. . . those who acquire [the skill of writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful;  they will rely on writing to bring these things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources.  What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.  And, as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality.  They will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.  And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”

Thamus’ observation via Postman’s presentation is instructive for us today as we are presented with a host of exciting, often brilliant, and irresistibly novel technologies that hold promise to improve our capacity to manage our businesses.  I would encourage the use of these tools wholeheartedly.  I would also encourage a caveat:

Each time you engage a technology to assist or replace an exercise that heretofore relied upon natural human senses, intuition, and ability, you run the risk of interfering with the power that natural ability affords us, especially when dealing with human affairs.  In the case of human affairs, I would always encourage opting for a human approach before any other.

As someone who for two decades has used a host of methodologies – both quantitative and qualitative – to try to understand human behavior and performance, I am inevitably reminded that organizations are made up of people, not metrics.  If you do decide to use a dashboard, perhaps it should include, at the very least, a graph that depicts how many different types of people across your staff, customers, and stakeholders you’ve engaged in a deep conversation about their lives over the past day, week, or month.

That’s a metric I could buy into.