Investing in an Executive Dashboard?

I’m not alone, I suspect, in continuously seeing applications for the old adage – “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In preparing for this column on executive dashboards I have to admit that it came resoundingly to mind again.

With growing attention to IT delivering value to its business and organizations, along with a building awareness of the need for much improved IT governance you would think we would have a lot that’s new to say here. All the more so given the fanfare around social networking, data warehousing, balanced scorecards, cloud delivery systems and the changing role of IT from “provider” to “broker.”

So when the sheer volume of noise that came cascading down from all of the above lands back down on initials that stand for “Service Level Agreement,” (or Special Libraries Association and Symbionese Liberation Army) I have to admit to experiencing a bit of a letdown.

EMA data shows that SLAs are where most IT and some non-IT executives want to start with executive dashboards. And, in many respects, this makes sense: People start with what they know. “Service Level Agreements” and “Operational Level Agreements” along with good old “Key Performance Indicators” are familiar turf to IT professionals and executives. And it wasn’t very long ago that getting a solid SLA/OLA strategy was viewed as a very challenging objective that required real maturity.

For the most part it still is — although cloud computing has raised some additional challenges to “traditional” SLA management. But even without cloud, good SLAs are as core as they can and should be are really just the beginning to an open minded assessment of what you should be looking for in an executive dashboard.

In this column I’m going to talk about the executive dashboard investment from two perspectives: the internal approach and external approach.

Your approach should begin with answering the question, who are you and therefore what do you need? CIOs clearly inhabit a land of shifting sands where internal metrics and external metrics both need to be mutually reinforcing. This is easier said than done — especially when both internal and external options are examined in their full complexity breadth.

So suppose, for instance, your first priority is to get a handle on internal governance? You want to make sure that your organization is efficient, does what it should according to pre-established expectations, has solid processes and objectives defined and is fully accountable. And you want to know who’s responsible at a managerial level when something goes wrong.

Then you might look at metrics from the following sources as just a few examples:

  • Best practices for processes and process definitions with named managerial owners. These might include of course the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), COBIT, or Six Sigma data that can tell you who is responsible for what processes.
  • And directly associated with this — KPIs for evaluating process efficiencies: for instance, the number of changes made to infrastructure or software that had to be redone, or mean-time-to-repair (MTTR) when operations are trying to resolve unplanned Incidents.
  • Third party vendor-related SLAs; whether from new-age cloud service providers, traditional telcos, MSPs, or some other source. Vendor management challenges are skyrocketing, thanks to cloud and other ecosystem-related phenomena.
  • Software and hardware costs as an aggregate along with knowing when large sectors of your infrastructure of software investment are coming due. This is more critical than you might think because when infrastructure ruptures from age or obsolescence, for instance, it typically carries many skill sets and professionals with it. Replacing hardware and software may actually require retraining, or even new hiring so beware.
  • Business critical project management data: from efficiencies in application development to initiatives surrounding data center transformation.
  • Your mid-level managers may need to drill down into issues such as unified demand management, which can impact many of the metrics above.
  • Balanced Scorecard metrics for internally-defined “destinations.”

Now for a sample of a few critical external indicators:

  • Key data surrounding user experience and performance for critical business or organizational applications (e.g., availability, response time, consistency of response time, aborted transactions, etc.)
  • Cost of degraded service performance: Whether you have purely empirical or less scientific data to assign costs to critical applications, having some system in place for ranking based on cost to business performance is vital.
  • Business process impact: Metrics that indicate how your key applications impact critical business or organizational processes. This can of course significantly contribute to how you assign cost allocations.
  • Other “customer” impact data: This can include quick visibility into who your internal and external customers actually are and how and when those customers consume your services. It might also include what EMA calls “ecosystem-related” customers, such as partners, supply-chain relationships, etc.
  • Mechanisms for sharing appropriate data with your “customers” — an area that’s relatively mature from a linear service-provider-to-enterprise perspective but barely even understood from a total ecosystem perspective.
  • Balanced Scorecard for external or business-defined “destinations”

EMA data, by the way, indicates that most CIOs and other leading executives are willing to spend about $250,000 for something that approximates some of the above. And last time I looked, no one really expected to get all of the above in a single place. Which is a good thing because there wasn’t any one place to get anything like the above in a cohesive, current, easy to use way.

Which raises the question: What realistically are your dashboard options in Q2 2011?

In my next column, I’m going to look at two approaches to dashboard design: IT data warehouse and what I call Layered, or the CMS design.

Dennis Drogseth is VP of Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates, an industry research firm focused on IT management. Dennis can be reached at [email protected].

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