A Different Kind of Dashboard

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What is the secret of a good HR dashboard? The right metrics? Clean data? An ability to drill down? By now we should know that those are not the secret because we’ve been trying them for years with uninspiring results. The true secret of a good dashboard is that it is composed of questions.

I first saw a real HR dashboard that was composed of questions in my work with Grand Round’s SVP of Employee Experience, Peter Navin. Take a moment to look at one part of the dashboard which is excerpted from our book “The CMO of People: Manage Employees Like Customers With an Immersive Predictable Experience That Drives Productivity and Performance”.

Let’s consider the section of the dashboard devoted to Org Structure. It has three questions that relate to concerns any investor would have about a young, growing company:

  • Are we top heavy?
  • Is our span of control and layers appropriate?
  • Are we gaining economies of scale as we grow?

Now I know everyone is immediately wondering what metrics sit behind this. I encourage you to pause for a moment.

A different kind of dashboard, the best kind of dashboard, doesn’t put the data first, instead it concentrates on asking the right questions. If we are asking good questions, then we can work our way to using data to provide answers. If we start with data, just because we happen to have it, we end up in the land of “So what?”  This different kind of dashboard avoids that fate.

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Moving from questions to answers

How do we answer the first question: “Are we top heavy?” You can usually just eyeball the answer from a look at the organizational chart. If you prefer something more data-centric you can present numbers of senior leaders relative to middle management relative to workers.

The data-centric answer is the one most people are looking for, however I prefer the former because it emphasizes that this is a different kind of dashboard. In practice, you could throw up the organizational chart at a meeting and challenge leadership with that business question: “Are we top heavy?”  A relevant, practical and lively discussion would flow from there. That lively discussion is a far cry from the usual questions that come up with HR dashboards which more often than not are about nitpicking the numbers rather than addressing a business issue.

The next question, “Is our span of control and layers appropriate?”, can also be answered by a look at the org chart or some basic data about average span of control and number of layers in each part of the business. In either case, managers won’t stare blankly at the page wondering what story they are meant to pull from the data; they’ll dive into the issue of whether they have a problem with spans or layers.

Finally, the last question reflects Peter Navin’s experience in fast-growing companies: “Are we gaining economies of scale as we grow?” Here possible metrics include trends in revenue per employee and operating expenses as a percent of revenue. These metrics are answering a different dashboard question than they would in an established firm—and it’s the questions that matter.

Aspirations and estimates

Many of the questions in the dashboard are hard to answer, especially for a young company. Peter’s position is that a dashboard should be aspirational, it should include the questions that matter, even if you don’t have the data yet.

A dashboard with many blank entries takes some courage to present; but you are better off focusing on reporting on what matters rather than what’s easy. That’s a line we often hear; this is one of the few times I’ve seen someone fully living up to it.

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We don’t need to fear those blank entries as much as you might think. Often you may have to say, “We don’t have this data, but we do have a rough estimate.” More often than not an estimate will give leaders enough information that they can answer the question on the dashboard to their satisfaction. Where it will not, leadership is likely to be supportive of the investment it will take to produce better numbers.

Moving forward

This different kind of dashboard, one that priorities questions over data, is not what you leaders will be expecting. If you move down this road, you’ll have to ease people along until they come to see the purpose of an HR dashboard differently.

Don’t worry if you can’t do it all at once. Be aspirational. Start leading with a few questions; start including a few estimates; and leave one or two blank spaces for data the organization really ought to have but doesn’t yet. Dashboards are an exercise in education, teach your leaders what an HR dashboard really ought to be.

David Creelman and Peter Navin recently published a book titled “The CMO of People: Manage Employees Like Customers With an Immersive Predictable Experience That Drives Productivity and Performance”, which can be found here.

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