Dashboards vs. Reports - Which is Better for My Business?

Visual Business Intelligence Dashboards or Reports: Which is Best for Your Business?

Reporting is the lifeblood of management in most businesses, in fact, it has become so important that many operations succeed or fail based on the quality of reporting received. The difference though between reporting and dashboards is still as fuzzy as trying to find a path in a muddy bog full of fog and mist without a map or compass. Part of the problem has to do with what people think of when they hear the word “report.” Reports range from formal papers to instantly produced spreadsheets on the fly; it’s a relative term that is spelled out by the person or group who wants the report and the person or group producing it. No surprise then, technology tools designed to automate reporting are also defined by the same varied terms and meanings we apply to the word “report” which is where the confusion takes root.

Early on business analytic tools were extremely technical and not user-friendly. This didn’t help with understanding the potential in advanced reporting; instead managers dumped the technical parsing work on an analyst versed in the technical language to produce a readable document from the data. And over time, this position became the bottleneck being the scribe for management as well as the input point where technical data was sent.

Fortunately, the advancement of personal computers made the technical simple to understand and manipulate. It was a transition like going from the odd language of HTML-coding to now using drag-and-drop website creation tools involving no coding whatsoever such as Microsoft Publisher.

Fundamentally, both dashboards and reports serve the same purpose: condensing information in a summary format that a decision-maker can use to make decisions quickly. The difference is in how they are created and for what kind of audience.

What Exactly is a Business Intelligence Dashboard?

An actual business intelligence dashboard is a visual representation of reporting data. It may be the number of sales, the number of employees, time of a monitored period, change over time in a graphical trend display and much more. The actual elements or metrics are defined by each organization, but they typically involve key performance indicators (KPIs) of the organization. A good way to think of a dashboard is the dials in a car that a driver uses to know how fast he is going, how hard the engine is working and how much fuel is left in the tank. These are designed to convey valuable information in one place quickly to determine the health of the car, or in the case the company.

Live Time Streaming of Key Metrics

A key advantage of a digital dashboard is that, when designed correctly, the tool can provide streaming key metrics as they are occurring. A typical example most are used involves dashboard used by stockbrokers. The data of real-time stock trading values streams across at the bottom of the screen while the market’s overall health is show in the index value and graphical display as the market goes up and down during the day. This is, essentially, live streaming. The same kind of principle can apply to a company’s data if there is data to feed regularly throughout the day.

Automatically Updated Using API’s From Existing Data Sources

Human reporters can manually update a dashboard from vetted information or it can be constructed from immediately inputted and stored raw data as it occurs. Many favor the raw data when simply wanting to see the information as it occurs, and such capture can be constructed using application programming interfaces or APIs. This is similar to the screens network administrators use to watch bandwidth usage across a network to find hotspots and trouble right away. The key factor in API designed dashboards is 1) capturing the right data for management and then 2) not reading into it more than is there, i.e. a gas tank showing close to empty is just that, a tank low on fuel, nothing more.

Designed to Be a One-Screen Overview

Like our car analogy, the dashboard tool is intended to be a one-screen overview of reported data. There are not multiple pages to file through. Instead, it provides a quick look at point-in-time data and then the decision-maker must decide what to do with that information. There is no thesis or elaborate recommendation with alternative options detailed out or modeling to consider.

What Exactly is a Business Intelligence Report?

Business intelligence reporting can come in two common forms: enterprise reporting and ad-hoc reporting.

Enterprise Reporting

This type is the version most people are familiar with and have studied from their time in business school. These reports include text, tables, charts and details. They are often crafted with facts and trends, and then an analysis interpreting the information with a recommendation for the decision-maker/reader to follow-through on. They can be in the form of a memo, a formal report, or even a glossy publication. A key limitation of enterprise reports is that they take time to prepare, which means their information is often stale by the time it is read.

Ad-Hoc Reporting

A rougher version of an enterprise report, these are reports put together quickly with information at hand. They do include analysis, but very limited conclusions based on limited data. They answer factual questions in the moment very well but provide poor trend analysis over time. Ad-hoc reporting is often used for regular status reporting, specific and technical answering, and snapshot measurement. Recommendations are often limited to short-term technical actions versus long-term policy directions.

Detailed Analysis of a Specific Period

Dashboards are uniquely adapted to numerical display. In many ways, the coding behind constructing one can apply thousands of mathematical and metric results quickly and easily; it’s simply a matter of how much a user wants to see on the screen. Traditional reporting is not so flexible; the purpose, goal and framework of report limits metrics and measurements to just those that support the report’s premise. No surprise then, dashboards can be far more objective in their information display.

Manually or Automatically Generated from Existing Sources of Data

This is an easy question: think about how much time staff spend crafting a given spreadsheet after compiling the data and research. Then think about how fast the same information can be compiled, summarized and displayed on a dashboard. Which one happens faster, more reliably and can be used again and again whenever desired? Exactly.

Designed to Be Multiple Pages Allowing for Detailed Exploration

A myth exists that dashboards are one-trick ponies. Modern dashboards can be designed to drill down on specific data, providing the underlying material if desired but remaining at the high level of information display until more is needed. This dual information handling is extremely handy when a user needs a bit more information than an immediate summary metric.

Dashboards Serve a Different Purpose to Reports

Clearly dashboards have a different function and purpose than traditional reports. No one is going to bring a dashboard to corporate board meeting, for example. However, one might be running in the background of a head management office.

The Live Data Stream Emphasizes Quick and Simple Analysis

Dashboard tools are also flexible and compatible with many device systems, easily making their information both available mobile across a company or organizational network. Many managers today utilize distribution tools linked to dashboards to receive text and email updates as business occurs and metrics are reported. The results produce faster decisions without the limitation of place or time.

The Simple Overview Allows for Quick Assessment of Live Data

Quick assessment is an immediate result from the implementation of a dashboard, but there is also another benefit. People tend to psychologically feel a need to improve. Especially when a dashboard is color coded, like a thermometer, positive colors are interpreted as reward and negative colors engender a need to fix a problem quickly. The overall results tend to be increased performance all around and a higher level of output just from passive placement of the tool.

Information Gleaned from a Dashboard May Lead to Generating a New Report

There is always the benefit that once the information is captured through a dashboard system, it too can be used as a resource for data, trends and measurements that feed into a traditional report after the fact. This is particularly advantageous for trend analysis and long-term policy support with everything in one place.

Both Dashboards and Reports Are Important for Your Business

Bottom line, both dashboards and traditional reports provide companies methods of summarizing and distributing key information. However, where real-time status reporting and metrics are needed, even on a mobile platform, dashboards clearly have carved out their advantage as a reporting tool. A smart company will find a way to utilize both tools and use them together seamlessly. It only makes sense in both the short and long-term.

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