When a spacecraft clears the launch tower at the Kennedy Space Center, responsibility for the flight passes from NASA’s Launch Control Center in Florida to Mission Control in Houston. There, a team of engineers punch away at computer terminals, pushing critical information to a towering display at the front of the room. Dozens of screens stream data in real time. The success of the mission depends on this wall of dashboards. This is where the decisions are made.
Not only is Mission Control an icon of the country’s role in space exploration, but it’s also a vivid example of how dashboards can be critical for decision making.
The In Trust Center has presented a webinar on dashboards, during which presenters Robert Landrebe, Chris Meinzer, and Anthony Ruger discussed ways to develop an ideal dashboard. What should a good dashboard include? Who determines what is included? How often should it be viewed? And who is the target audience? The process of creating a dashboard -- and determining which indicators are important -- can be very instructive for both board members and administrators. Here’s a taste of what can be found in the webinar, which you can view online here.
What is a dashboard?
A dashboard is a display of key indicators that help institutions steer their activities towards their declared strategic outcomes. The imagery, of course, is obvious to anyone who drives a car. Just like the dashboard on your 1981 Ford Fairmont, it’s critical that indicators be visible and the data easy for a user to assimilate. This typically necessitates graphic displays such as graphs, pie charts, or something more creative.
The dashboard is the public face of a more involved system of collecting and presenting data. The success of a dashboard depends on the quality of that data. Bob Landrebe, the senior vice president and COO of Asbury Theological Seminary, points out that this requires an organizational climate where individuals are not punished for posting unsatisfactory data (e.g., low recruitment numbers). Otherwise, the temptation to skew information is introduced into the system.
As you begin to have discussions about dashboards, some acronyms become handy. Here are a few for the jargon file:
- CFIR: Composite Financial Index Ratio
- IPPR: Institutional Peer Profile Report (Click here for more info)
- KPI: Key performance indicators
- SIR: Strategic Information Report (Click here for more info)
Who’s the target audience?
Information is vital to everyone — from the part-time sorter in the mailroom up to the president’s office. Board members, with their legal responsibilities to the health and vitality of the school, need a steady stream of information.
Chris Meinzer, senior director of administration and CFO for the Association of Theological Schools, reminds everyone that the ATS accrediting standards require an ongoing system of evaluation and assessment of institutional vitality (General Institutional Standard 1.2 and General Institutional Standard 220.127.116.11). It’s the administration’s job to keep the board educated.
Much of this data is financial, but this doesn’t mean the audience is limited to the finance committee. On the contrary, the whole board is the target audience. Beyond that, dashboards can be used by any part of a school. Being graphic, they can be a great tool for feeding info to non-managers and outside audiences as well.
What should a dashboard look like?
Determining what a dashboard will look like is part of the process, and the result is unique to each organization. Dashboards can be as complex as Mission Control’s wall of streaming data, or as simple as the lonely ammeter on a Model T.
Practically speaking, Meinzer notes, it is important for the dashboard creator to pay attention to user interaction and frustration. “A dashboard should be revised continually,” he says. How the dashboard looks depends a lot on the people who use it, so those people should be part of the dashboard-creation process.
How often should the dashboard be used and updated?
“As often as necessary” is the short answer, but there are several approaches, depending on the indicators you’re looking at. Consultant Anthony Ruger feels that financial indicators should be updated monthly. Data pertaining to enrollment and development, however, could have a less rigid schedule -- perhaps updated every semester. Because dashboards are of key importance to board members, the schedule of regular board meetings may determine how often dashboards are refreshed.
What are the dangers?
The process of maintaining an effective dashboard depends on having a good system for gathering data. The system needs to be reliable, reviewed and accurate.
As Ruger notes, the biggest challenge is overcoming inertia. There are a lot of inherent de-motivators to overcome when drumming up support for a dashboard, including the practical issues of getting a large number of people to agree on what data should be collected and how they should be displayed.
Finally, Chris Meinzer says that once a board has a dashboard that is both visually appealing and timely, there needs to be some thought regarding an interpretive framework. How are we going to read these data? And how, once the numbers are understood in context, will we respond to them?
Where to start?
The average number of key performance indicators on a school dashboard is 29, but some people find this number unmanageable and others require many more. The trick is to realize that the number need not be static. You can start with one or two indicators and add more as you go.
To view the webinar yourself, visit here.
To read more on dashboard indicators, see “Making Metrics Matter: How to Use Indicators to Govern Effectively.”
Blog Image Credit: "ISS Mission Control" by Kenneth Lu