Most carriers still in business in 2005 have made substantial investments in information technology and wireless communications along the way. The money has been spent, the systems are in place and data is flowing like a cresting river through the organization. The question plaguing some executives now is: “Is this it? Is this as far as our technology can take us? Or can we do something else to leverage our existing investment, to realize more benefits from we already have?”

For many companies, that something else is implementing and using a business dashboard. “Today, much of the investment in information technology has already been made. A dashboard is really one of the final pieces of the puzzle,” observes Ted Wilson, vp-sales and marketing for California-based SL Corp., a provider of software solutions for the monitoring and display of real-time information.

“A dashboard allows companies to leverage their investment in information technology to make it more effective,” he explains. “We're seeing much more interest in dashboards in the last few quarters from companies in every industry that are eager to get better visibility into the information they already have.”

IT'S ALL ABOUT ACTION

The power of dashboards as business tools comes from two key features: the ability to aggregate and display lots of data in easy-to-read and use graphic displays, and the ability to do so in real time, continuously, all day every day. Imagine being able to watch gauges on your computer screen that show you information such as the number of idle trucks you have right now, the average revenue per lane, or your empty miles and you begin to get a feel for what a dashboard can bring to daily fleet operations and strategic planning.

Suppose, for example, that two competing fleets each happen to accept a load on the same day for which no rate has been agreed upon. In each case, the load is from a regular customer and the problem is simply an administrative oversight: Someone forgot to confirm already established rates. At Fleet A, the load is picked up and delivered on time with no problems, but the customer calls with a complaint when the invoice arrives. “I am sure you said that fuel surcharge was going away,” the customer says. “I want it deleted. And our rates for Q1 were supposed to stay at prior-year levels. I'm sure that was what we talked about the other day. We expect you to make the appropriate adjustments to this invoice before we process it for payment.”

At Fleet B, a manager sees a message pop up on the computer screen that same morning concerning a load just booked. The dashboard system they recently implemented includes a warning function for certain events, and trips accepted without an assigned rate are one such event. She picks up the phone and calls the planner. “That load out of Chicago you just assigned — did you confirm the rate with the customer? You didn't? Well, mistakes happen. Lucky we caught it before the driver left. Thanks for taking care of it right away.”

The example is a small thing, but it illustrates the visibility and velocity dashboards can bring to business processes and decisions. Fleets A and B each had all the information in their respective IT systems to identify and handle the oversight, but the dashboard enabled Fleet B to spot the problem and correct it before the trip even started.

WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN?

It may seem like dashboards just appeared on the business horizon, but the basic concept has been around for decades. “The concept of the computer giving current status data existed back in the mid-1970s,” says Tom Weisz, president and CEO of TMW Systems, a provider of fleet management software and a dashboard system called ResultsNow, which includes a watchdog alert function called The Dawg. “In the 1970s, however, they were making fairly crude measurements, like the movement of something along an assembly line. The vision existed, but the technology wasn't ready to enable it. Today it is.

“Peter Drucker is actually credited with originating the idea of key performance indicators,” Weisz continues. “Key performance indicators are those factors that impact the success of a process [and hence the profitability and health of a company] directly or indirectly. Selecting the right key performance indicators is the first and most-important step in setting up a customized dashboard for your business.”

CHOOSING THE GAUGES

According to Weisz, asking the right questions in a very precise way is critical to creating a dashboard that will really benefit your business. “Companies may have wrong ideas about what really drives their profitability,” he says.

“For example, people may think that better truck and trailer utilization equals greater profitability,” Weisz points out. “But if the loads are bad, they may actually adversely impact profitability. If you're a manager and you say, ‘I want to see 90% utilization,’ you may be shooting yourself in the foot. Before you create a dashboard gauge, you have to do an historical validation to make sure what you think matters really does.”

CALLING ALL KNOWLEDGE WORKERS

Initially, dashboards were viewed as tools exclusively for senior executives and financial managers — another way to crunch the numbers that could take into account tangible financial measures like ROI and net present value, as well as so-called intangibles like customer loyalty or employee turnover. Today, however, workers at all levels of an organization use specialized dashboards to help them manage their portions of the business operation.

“Dashboards are not just for executives,” says Mark W. Stephens, director of marketing for McLeod Software, a provider of fleet management software and a suite of “Business Intelligence” software tools, including the soon-to-be-available LoadMaster Executive Dashboard module, designed to enable companies to measure and monitor their key performance indicators. “Today, companies can use dashboards to give various people access to the information they need to know about their particular jobs,” he explains. “Driver managers may only want to track driver performance-related indicators, such as percent of on-time deliveries. Accounts payable, on the other hand, may want to receive a warning, such as our RapidAlert function provides, when a customer exceeds their credit limit. Safety managers may want to keep a watchful eye on drivers' hours of service.”

“All the knowledge workers within an organization need to know more about the impact of the work they're doing on the business as a whole,” offers Tom Weisz. “When you work with something tangible like machining a part, you get feedback on how well you're doing. Many knowledge workers don't know for sure if they did a good job … at the end of the day. Good feedback….is a great morale and productivity enhancer.

“Imagine going home wondering, ‘Did I do the right thing? Did I do what I was supposed to do?’ The worst torture is when there is no clear correlation between your actions and punishment or reward,” Weisz adds. “Dashboards can help companies provide that correlation.”

ARE WE THERE YET?

Implementing a dashboard can certainly help fleets leverage their current IT technology investments to achieve a much greater return, but they don't mark the end of the journey. “Once you start using a good dashboard, you can't imagine how you lived without it,” says Weisz. “You can implement it in a week, but then it goes on forever. [You can't] sit back and say: ‘Now I'm in full control of my business and there's nothing more I can learn.’ You have to keep fine-tuning those gauges and making choices based on what you learn. It's still up to you to drive your business.”