Will replacing presentations with interactive visual dashboards help executives make decisions?

Recently I have seen more emphasis on creating interactive visual dashboards for executives in products such as Tableau and Power BI. These dashboards allow executives to visually play with graphs based on underlying data. They can apply filters for time periods, products, geographic regions, and many other dimensions. They can position their cursor on a specific spot on the visual and the details of that point pop up on the screen. Some suggest that presentations can be replaced by these dashboards.

These dashboards look cool and fancy, but I wonder whether the executives they are built for are really getting what they need. I can see the value in an analyst using some of these approaches to be able to visually see patterns or anomalies in data which leads to deeper investigation and hopefully insights. My concern is that an executive has a different role, one that may not be helped by these displays of information.

The role of an executive is to make difficult decisions that move the organization forward on the goals it has set. The executive relies on the experts in each area to perform analysis that will discover key insights into the current performance of the organization. This leads to suggestions of what actions can be taken to improve the key metrics. The role of the analyst is to perform the analysis and determine the recommended actions. The executive doesn’t have the time or the detailed knowledge to do the analysis.

Most of the dashboards I see are providing measurement and performance results that answer the questions, “What happened?” and “How did the results compare to last time period or the standard?” This is good for analysis, but not what executives need. Executives need the answer to “What should we do next?” The answer to that question requires the in-depth knowledge and context of the subject matter expert. The executives need to keep a strategic perspective, not spend time in the weeds on every issue.

When the executive is given access to all the details through the dashboard, it can lead to wild goose chases that waste organizational resources. If an executive can play with all the data, they may feel compelled to ask a question to prove they have looked at the details of the dashboard. Often they find an obscure number, one not related to any key conclusion. They ask for more analysis of that number which results in wasted effort investigating an area that won’t help in the insights that the organization needs to move forward. It delays decision making, meaning opportunities get missed.

I wonder if this push to make access to all the underlying data visually is really just another version of putting a spreadsheet on a slide. You give the audience all the data and hope they come to the right conclusion. Often it results in confusion and delayed or incorrect decisions due to the overwhelm of information. Is this another case of “just because we can give them access doesn’t mean we should”?

I think with any tool we need to step back and ask what benefit the output will have for each role in the organization. Like many other tools, these visual dashboard tools can create different outputs. The typical “make all the data available to everyone” output may be fine for analysts, but I don’t think it is best for executives.

I’d like to see the output be a summary of key insights that the executive needs to act on. If the executive wants to dive deeper into the analysis behind the insight, they can drill down to the next level. That next level should be one level above the actual data. It is a summary of the key considerations and analysis that led to the insight. If we jump right to the detailed data, I think it goes too deep too quickly. Often the executive just needs to see the criteria and options analysis to be convinced that the insight they are being given is well supported. They don’t need all the details of the data. If they do need to go to the detailed data, it should be in consultation with the subject matter expert who can guide them through the analysis of the data so they don’t go down paths that will waste time and effort.

I see this as very similar to the way a presentation to executives should be structured. The slide we present should contain the key insights from our analysis. If the executive wants to inquire about the analysis, we can access a hidden slide that contains the key aspects of the analysis. If there are further questions that need an examination of the data, it should be taken offline into a separate discussion.

Communicating in a presentation or communicating through a visual executive dashboard should be focused on clearly communicating the important messages to the audience. It should not be about showing all the data, since that will overwhelm and confuse the audience.