Dashboards for the win!  This article is going to discuss the most popular tools in the Business Intelligence world for Microsoft Dynamics AX users, focusing on features and functionalities.

If you follow this blog, you know that we write a lot about dashboards – and it’s not an accident.  According to a recent study on CFOs’ priorities in terms of technology, results indicated that dashboards, scorecards, and performance management solutions are #1 for financial executives.  In the modern business world, decision-making needs to be quick, easy, and smart for professionals across an organization.  Dashboards are exactly that.  To be more specific, dashboards or data visualizations are charts, graphs, and scorecards that employ key performance indicators (KPIs) to illustrate business successes, opportunities, and trajectories in the data, whether you’re looking at it organization-wide, departmentally, or in the context of a project.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that Business Intelligence (BI) dashboards derive from the same place as the dashboard in a car.  Much like operating a vehicle with the help of a data visualization, corporate decision-makers can keep the company on track with a quick glance at a chart or graph.  The main difference is that BI data visualizations are made for interaction and adjustments, offering drill-down and drill-to functionality, so you can analyze your operational and transactional information to make richer decisions about your company’s future.  Let’s move to a discussion of the options and specifically, feature and function choices you have to improve your data visualizations with Microsoft Dynamics AX.

First of all, you can query your data from multiple systems.  You can generate real-time analyses directly from Dynamics AX.  This method enables users to analyze and understand the health of the company at the very minute you run the dashboard, which is especially helpful when decision-makers need real-time reports.  This is also helpful for mid-sized companies that only need simple accounting system dashboards, without the resources to maintain a BI database, like a data warehouse or an online analytical processing (OLAP) cube.  However, larger organization tend to require something a little quicker and more powerful than a live integration from AX can provide.

An integration to a data warehouse or an OLAP cube invites larger groups of people to produce dashboards without making the AX server sluggish.  A BI data store integration simply offers a higher performance analysis.  But you will have to invest in the cube or warehouse – and replicate your data from AX and other sources to the data store.  You can also consider current hybrid offerings that allow for both integration options.

There are a few options on the market that allow you to generate dashboards live from AX and/or query data from a BI data store.  Real-time analytics are typically used for urgent, significant operational data reporting, as in sales or inventory analyses where department managers may need up-to-date info.  Other dashboards are designed for periodical refreshes because they zoom in on regular analytics (monthly, quarterly, yearly), so relying on a data warehouse or an OLAP cube integration will suffice.  Good news: solutions that offer both types of integration are going to be flexible, but not necessarily more expensive.  There are other aspects that you should weigh when shopping around to best meet your company’s dashboard needs.

Modern dashboard offerings function on various tech platforms, and you should know the difference.  Some independent software vendor (ISV) data visualizations run on a proprietary platform.  These depend on a third party interface that might entail a significant learning curve for your business end users who are Excel experts.  Some of these options are aesthetically and graphically impressive, but have their own set of formulas and formatting to learn.  Dynamics AX and Excel have built-in dashboard functions, but are overall simplistic in their functionality because dashboards are not the primary purpose of either program.  However, there are Excel add-in options.

Software that invites you to work within Excel will enable your finance team to hit the ground running due to the how familiar they are with Microsoft’s spreadsheet program, utilizing formatting, features, and functions that a lot of us already know very well.  Excel’s native dashboards can be produced in the spreadsheet, but because data visualizations are so important to CFOs, there are plenty of vendors producing more powerful solutions.  Excel add-in technology will likely be the easiest choice to implement because of how business user friendly the platform is, along with how much power a product can add to Excel, but there’s also another option that is steadily gaining in popularity with the Dynamics AX crowd.

Web-based dashboards are here – and very popular because of how mobile they are.  There are plenty of web-powered dashboard solutions in the Cloud, or for on-premises implantation, building from an assortment of visualization options, with KPI analysis and drill-down capabilities, all accessible through a web portal.  Similarly accessible from anywhere with an internet connection, mobile dashboard applications are also quite popular.

Browser-based dashboards only require that you have internet access, while mobile data visualizations are accessible wherever you have your mobile device.  With executives, international offices, and road warriors making decisions around the clock and the globe, dashboards can enrich these decisions almost anywhere.  Dashboard vendors are noticing the need – and some already offer a mobile app.  Due to the size of the screen, these apps usually focus on just one chart or KPI at a time.  But you might feel like you want or need all of the dashboard options – Excel, web, and mobile – and there are also choices for you.

There are some products available today that offer more than one of the dashboard modes for more accessibility and flexibility.  Furthermore, some of these data visualizations are part of a complete suite of BI tools.  Sometimes, dashboards are even bundled with other tools at a discounted rate.  A suite offers a fully integrated, secure experience, with one team of partner, consultant and support professionals.  Easy?  You bet – and you’re saving time with an easy-to-use solution.

If you’re used to Dynamics AX, learning new technology can be frustrating, especially if it isn’t easy for business end users to implement.  Before investing in a tool, ensure that it is a product that your colleagues can effectively use to produce dashboards with IT involvement.  Modern dashboard tools should be simple to implement and utilize for everyone involved.  Solver offers an Excel, web and/or mobile-based dashboards module stand-alone and as part of the comprehensive suite of BI modules and would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use data visualization solution for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities with Microsoft Dynamics AX.