Dashboard is to envelope, as scorecard is to letter

Dashboards and scorecards are the Holy Grail of business intelligence. With either interface, users can easily and quickly find, analyze, and explore the information they need to perform their jobs. To borrow a term from the telecommunications industry, dashboards and scorecards represent the last mile of wiring connecting users to the data warehousing and analytical infrastructure organizations have created during the past decade.

Industry perceptions
But which is right for you? Although many people use dashboard and scorecard synonymously, there is a subtle distinction between them.

Dashboards monitor and measure processes. The common industry perception is that a dashboard is more real-time in nature, like an automobile dashboard that lets drivers check their current speed, fuel level, and engine temperature. So, a dashboard is linked to systems that capture events as they happen, and warns users through alerts or exception notifications when performance against established metrics deviates from the norm.

Scorecards chart progress toward objectives. The common perception of a scorecard is that it displays periodic snapshots of performance associated with an organization's strategic objectives and plans. It measures business activity at a summary level against predefined targets to see if performance is within acceptable ranges. It displays key performance indicators that help executives communicate strategies and help users focus on the highest-priority tasks needed to execute plans.

So, while a dashboard informs users what they are doing, a scorecard tells them how well they are doing. Or, put another way, a dashboard is a performance monitoring system; a scorecard is a performance management system.

Reality blurs the distinctions
In reality, however, these distinctions often fall apart when we examine how organizations use dashboards and scorecards. Most dashboards provide context to evaluate performance. Even indicators on an automobile dashboard provide more than just raw data. The labels on the gauges show when you're speeding, when you need more fuel or have an engine that's overheating. Newer cars even alert drivers with sounds or lighted icons when something needs immediate attention.

Meanwhile, many scorecards provide users with more than just monthly snapshots of summary performance data. Executives use them to empower users to work more productively. The best scorecards provide actionable information--the right data delivered to the right person at the right time. There's no use charting a department's progress if the data arrives too late or without sufficient detail for users to know how to fix a problem or capitalize on a fleeting opportunity.

Using cascading scorecards
Many people believe the term cascading scorecards refers to a series of hierarchical dashboards that align individuals and groups to an organization's overarching strategy. Integrating scorecards throughout the organizational hierarchy can effectively prod the organization to focus on the real drivers of corporate value and performance. Too often, executives create strategies and send them to managers and staff, who are too preoccupied with more immediate concerns, such as meeting budget goals, to concentrate more deeply on executing strategy. Deploying scorecards throughout the organization also shows employees how their actions affect the organization's direction and performance.

Dashboards and scorecards are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the best dashboards and scorecards merge each other's elements. If dashboards don't measure performance against key business objectives, why is the organization engaged in that business activity? If scorecards don't empower users with actionable information to change performance outcomes, what's the point of keeping score?

I like to view a dashboard as the container for performance information, and the scorecard as the content in that container. Or, a dashboard is like an envelope and the scorecard a letter inside it.

About the Author

Wayne W. Eckerson is director of education and research for The Data Warehousing Institute, where he oversees TDWI's educational curriculum, member publications, and various research and consulting services. He has published and spoken extensively on data warehousing and business intelligence subjects since 1994.