Dashboard Options for Dynamics and Other ERPs

, ,

Dashboards are the most relevant BI investment for financial professionals today.  This article will explore the functions and features of some leading solutions for a better understanding of what product will best meet the needs of your company.

As this blog has already reported, Dashboards are the big man on campus these days.  More specifically, dashboards are the number one Business Intelligence (BI) product for CFOs today.  Talking with BI customers in the business world, I hear it all the time.  One professional in particular spoke about needing fancy-looking dashboards for his executive team.  He told me, “I generate reports regularly, and they are still very valuable, but when it comes to presenting data to the executives, they want to see dashboards.”  He went on to tell me how dashboards are easy for busy professionals to read and analyze quickly.

Additionally, dashboards can be powerful tools of persuasion when presenting the facts because of the visual, fast-paced nature of today’s culture.  With data visualizations, market and company-specific trends can be quickly observed and understood.  But this professional was using native dashboards in the ERP system and seeking a stronger tool that he was going to propose an investment in by the company – and without spending too much time in sales meetings, demos, and webinars.  He and I discussed the main features of dashboards today, comparing relevant Dashboards solutions through the context of functionalities.  This blog will do the same thing: exploring the world of dashboards by comparing a few solutions, based on the most important characteristics.
Arguably the most important aspect to consider would be ease of use.  There are a few routes that vendors take when producing dashboard software: Excel, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system-based or a proprietary solution.  Excel is used globally as a trusted spreadsheet software, so the formulas, chart features, and functions are second nature to most finance teams.  Dashboards can be built within Excel on its own, and there are several Excel add-in products that simply accelerate the software with more capabilities.  In both cases, the familiarity with Excel makes dashboard generation easier.
Similarly, some ERP systems have features that allow users to build dashboards directly off of their databases.  Again, anyone regularly using the ERP would be likely be familiar with the dashboard feature, so they would be business user friendly.  However, proprietary dashboards function outside of the software that finance teams are already using, meaning a whole new set of formulas, features, and interfaces.  There could be a steep learning curve – or maybe not if they are built to be intuitive.  Their sophistication might make them all worth it to a customer, but it would be important to consider the cost of implementation will likely be higher, when it comes to training, consulting, and/or support.  Depending on the number of users, another thing to consider would be data integration.
This blog has discussed data integration options, specifically the pros and cons of live integrations versus integrating from a data warehouse or an OLAP cube, and that applies to dashboards as well.  Live integrations mean real-time data analysis, but depending on the size of the query and the number of ERP users, it can slow the ERP server for everyone involved.  As for using a data warehouse or an OLAP cube, it requires replication of data to the storage space, but because it is static information, its high performance is desirable to some companies.  However, there are dashboards solutions that will offer both, without necessarily being too expensive.   Access of information is of importance not only in terms of data integration, but also when it comes to mobility.
In today’s fast-paced, global, around-the-clock business world, accessibility becomes that much more valuable.  More specifically, web and mobile dashboards empower business professionals to analyze data from any coordinates and any time zone on the globe.  Some web dashboards are Excel-powered, and some are proprietary, so you will probably want to opt for the platform that is easiest to adopt amongst your dashboard designers and end users.  As for mobile accessibility, some vendors are producing mobile applications that usually measure just one KPI at a time currently, but if an executive needed to make an informed decision to move the company forward out of the office, they could pull out their smartphone and have instant access to that data.  Using ease of use, data integration options, and accessibility as the context, this blog is going to compare and contrast Excel and ERP-based dashboard solutions, the much more sophisticated Tableau, and the solution built for the mid-market, BI360.
When it comes to Excel and ERP-based solutions, ease of use is covered comprehensively.  Most companies are using Excel and an ERP of some sort, so the familiarity empowers native dashboard generation.  If the ERP doesn’t have native dashboards, you can still usually export the data to Excel.  However, because dashboards are not the primary focus or purpose for using Excel and ERPs, they are limited in options for graphical scorecards, charts, graphs, and other types of data visualizations.
Furthermore, they are often not web or mobile application accessible.  They tend to leave business users wanting more, especially like the guy I met who wanted something fancier to show his executives.  Bottom line: you get what you pay for – and generally speaking, when you purchase Excel or an ERP, you aren’t paying for dashboards.  They are more or less a freebie feature, without advanced features like drill-down or drill-to capabilities.  If your company is okay spending some money on dashboards, you can get a lot more functionality.
Tableau is a sophisticated, more complex dashboards solution – and you will get a lot more for paying more.  First of all, you can try their desktop product for free to get a feel for it.  They are a proprietary software with a Tableau server or can be hosted in the cloud.  Because of this flexibility, data visualizations are pretty accessible with tablet staged dashboards – or anywhere with an Internet connection, with the exception of a smartphone application.  Their proprietary interface could be more difficult to learn, although easier than older enterprise dashboard solutions, with its complexity outside of Excel, but the product can integrate from multiple data sources, live and stored.  The price might not be desirable for small or medium-sized companies, but there are other options.
In February this year, Solver launched web-based dashboards as a module within their full BI suite, BI360.  While they are young, they do pass the feature test.  You can design dashboards in their Excel add-in, which can be exposed to users either in Excel, in the BI360 web portal or on the BI360 mobile app.  BI360 integrates both live from Microsoft Dynamics AX, GP, NAV, SL, and other ERP data sources or from the suite’s data warehouse, for real-time analysis and more stable, high performance evaluation.  Another differentiation comes from the comprehensive suite, offering a fully integrated set of reporting, budgeting, dashboards, and a data warehouse that can be purchased all at once or piece by piece.
Lots to consider, but as I discussed with the guy who wanted to impress his executives with dashboards, do your homework.  Consider this article a big step in the right direction.  Solver would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use data visualization solution for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities.