Dashboards vs. Scorecards: Technical Hair Splitting?

Years ago my Communications 101 professor told us in class that we should care about the proper definition of words and use words properly “lest we confuse the people who actually do know the difference.”   Sage advice, of course, and also tricky to implement in real life since many words represent something specific to experts and aficionados, while they are mere buzzwords to everyone else.

So, why should we care whether we call something a “dashboard” or a “scorecard?” After all, they both use visual gadgets and graphs, don’t they?  Both provide information about what’s going on in the business, right?  In my experience, most end users really don’t care about the difference in nomenclature: what matters to them is whether the information they get enables profitable business decisions.

Yet, there is a critical difference we need to ferret out during requirements gathering: are we measuring performance or are we monitoring progress?  Measuring performance simply means keeping track of things – like fuel consumption or engine temperature in a car.  Monitoring progress implies that some thresholds and goals have been established: when the needle on the gas gauge nears “Empty” we need to start looking for a gas station.

Ergo, the critical difference is this: measuring things just provides information – what we do with that information is open to interpretation.  Unlike progress monitoring, measuring things doesn’t tell us when to do something nor does it provide information on what needs to get done.   In order to measure progress, though, we have to set goals and determine acceptable performance standards – in essence, we have to figure out what needs to get done and when to do it.  To stick with the car dash metaphor: someone has to determine how low the gasoline level can sink before the “fuel empty” warning light turns on.

Much has been written about scorecards and dashboards and their respective differences.  As a practical matter, I like this short hand definition from Wayne Eckerson, formerly the director of research and services at the Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI):

Dashboard Scorecard
Purpose Measures performance Charts progress
Users Managers, staff Executives, managers, staff
Updates Real-time to right-time Periodic snapshots
Data Events Summaries
Top-Level Display Charts and tables Symbols and icons

This chart provides a good starting point from which to explore requirements.  Often a dashboard becomes the starting point for a scorecard: while building a dashboard, the organization discusses what needs to be measured and how.  With measurements in place it’s now easier to set thresholds and develop SMART goals for a scorecard.

So, does it matter whether we call something a “dashboard” or a “scorecard”?  Yes – but not as much as one might think.  What matters more is that everyone is on the same page about the main purpose of the tool: are we measuring performance or are we monitoring progress?

Comments are closed.