The Dashboard Driven Company

A company without reports is like a social media group without topics for gossip. Reports for a long time have been the lifeline for many corporate managers to hang their hat on. The computer rooms of the erstwhile mainframe computers era used to look like mini printing presses, with different reports fondly referred to as “the 2-inch thick report”, “the 10-inch master report” and so on. A manager’s importance in the organization was directly proportional to the number of reports that he or she was entitled to receive.

Enter the age of interactive computing. ‘Information at your finger tips’, ‘Reports at the touch of a button’ and similar slogans egged the senior executives forward to the point where they quickly hired secretaries to click on the computer programs that would spew out reports for them. The fact that the reports, in whatever shape or form, remained largely unread was a moot point, lost in the ‘bigger picture’.

Reports soon gave way to Dashboards. ‘I want everything in one place’; ‘I want to see one version of the truth’; ‘I want all relevant information presented on one screen’; ‘I want a quick snapshot of what is going on in my region’ – these are some of the popular ‘justifications’ for wanting to have a Dashboard where information is required to be presented as though the audience were a preschooler – colorful pies, multi-directional arrows, cascading stairs and other visual attractions.

Dashboards in any organization start with the objective of providing complex information in a simple fashion. The VP, Sales wants to know how the company is trending in sales, which products are selling well, which regions are doing badly, and so on. As soon as this information is presented, the same VP wants to see this year’s numbers compared with data during the same period last year, immediately expanding the scope and complexity of the dashboard. In jumps the VP, Finance who wants the cost of sales presented alongside on the same dashboard. This trend of being ‘all things to all men’ continues till the dashboard becomes just an entry point for literally hundreds of, you got it, good old reports.

So, what goes round comes around. While the presentation of data in fanciful formats, also known as dashboards, is the center of focus for many organizations, the all-important aspect of what actions need to be taken based on the information available remains an elusive after-thought.

 

The Analysts

In writing this next episode of my inside look at the corporate world, I am going to take the liberty of stepping outside and shining the light on another group, the stock market analysts. This group, in a manner of speaking, is like a super-company which has perhaps reached even greater heights in skullduggery than the most astute corporate gurus.

There is no gradual rising up the ladder for a member of this analyst group. Each one is a self-proclaimed pundit from inception. They have the final word on any situation or company, or both, except that the final word is never a conclusion or definitive recommendation on anything. If you think any of these ‘experts’ will tell you which stock or mutual fund to invest in, you will be sorely disappointed – the best you are going to get may be something like, ‘subject to global winds of uncertainty, we see a potential for this company to add value in the long run’. ‘How long is long?’; ‘Value for who?’; and, ‘What is Value anyway?’

When an analyst rates a stock, the words are well designed to be ambiguous enough to cover his/her backside when (not ‘if’, you may note) the predictions fall flat. ‘Outperform’, ‘Underweight’ and similar terms may give you the impression that you are looking at an advertisement for a gymnastics show or MMA event. And it becomes even more complicated, read incomprehensible, when the ratings of multiple analysts are averaged out on a scale of 1-5 and you get a ‘recommendation’ of 1.49. You might as well toss a coin to make your decision.

When these analysts form a panel to discuss ‘stuff’ on TV or other online media, it feels like you are watching an alien invasion of your property, read sanity. The topics discussed and the language used are bizarre and so full of jargon that discussions in any corporate meetings sound like nursery rhymes. Terms like ‘forward looking same-store performance’ and ‘earnings per share adjusted for reverse splits’ leave you mesmerized and frightened at the same time. To top it all, an array of charts and graphs are shown, moved around and superimposed on one another till you are dizzy with vertigo.

Data is the analysts’ forte and invincible weapon. Any point of view can be proven or dismissed using ‘relevant’ data. So, the analysts, over decades, have come up with more and more ratios and ‘indicators’. They could bind you into a tangled web with price-to-earnings-to-growth and return-on-equity ratios while befuddling you with operating income from ongoing operations. When they run out of numbers and ratios, they invent new ones by dividing two existing numbers.

If you feel the need to run for your life from the assault of these analysts, I would recommend you head for your backyard and, along with the squirrels, bury your precious savings.

World of Acronyms

Corporate life is full of acronyms. In fact, many a corporate veteran talks only in acronyms. If you have felt inadequate, even downright miserable, in the corporate jungle for not being able to understand what is going on in conversations filled with acronyms, and felt like an outsider struggling to get in, rest assured you are not alone.

Mission and Vision statements (a corporate tool in its own right) are perhaps one of the most frequent landing spots for ingenious acronyms. DELIVER (Drive, Energy, Listen, Innovate, Validate, Exemplify, Review) could be a poignant expression (no doubt coming out of a million-dollar consultancy) that the CEO proudly put out. But to the novice employee – the corporate equivalent of the ‘layman’ – this looks like random babble coming from a child learning new words. What are you Validating? And, pardon my ignorance, what is this Energy business – are we supposed to drink Gatorade at work?

I must admit that glib acronyms look slick in presentations using power point slides – I have sat through many – especially when the flashy acronyms are designed to interlace, intersect and fly across large screens. What better way to egg people on to action than to have them DONT (Do, Own, Novel, Try) or have them MISS (Make It Seriously Simple). Once you get the hang of it, you will notice that you can confuse, I mean communicate, any idea with any sequence of letters – they soon start looking like stock symbols!

To me, entertainment in the office comes in the form of listening to two executives having a ‘business’ conversation with liberal use of acronyms:

Executive-1: Hi, how is it going? (sorry, no acronyms in this greeting)

Executive-2: Busy, pal. Trying to get this RFP (Request for Proposal) done by EOD (End of Day).

Executive-1: I know the feeling. My CTO (Chief Technology Officer) told me TYT (Take your time) but in no time turned around and told me to complete the API (Application Program Interface) document by COB (Close of business)

Executive-2: Honestly, IMO (In my opinion), these guys are nuts.  That is why I frequently WFH (Work from home) and put out an OOO (Out of office) notification.

Those trying assiduously to climb the corporate ladder might spend their time learning all the acronyms in the organization but the real smart ones invent new ones!

Presenting Procedures

The corporate world is all about appearances and portrayal. Nowhere else is it more evident than in the art of elaborating on an innocuous, almost intuitive, activity to make it appear like it is the next most complex thing after landing on the moon. Forget ‘making a mountain out of a mole hole’, ‘beating a dead horse’ or ‘selling ice to Eskimos’ – welcome to the world of presenting procedures.

The IT folks are notorious for explaining procedures since they have to deal with many people born before the word computer was invented. There is never a simple ‘switch on the printer’; it is always a ‘start up sequence for the system – refer section 1.3(a)/5 for the 100 steps involved’. And when something fails and you are unable to login, it is never a ‘sorry, we messed up’; it is more like, ‘the database connections on the standby servers were not reinitialized using the 13 mandatory steps prescribed, after the recent middleware upgrade’ (shoot me, I hear you saying).

The Human Resources (HR) people are not ones to be outdone by the technical folks. They develop (or get developed through consultants) job descriptions that belabor the point ad nauseam. Almost all job descriptions have universal clauses such as “must be a self-starter” (as in a motor car?); “must be able to work with minimal guidance” (non-GPS mode?); “must be a team player” (no tennis singles?); “must be a problem solver” (calculator?)”. To add further redundancy to the  whole scenario, the same list of items is mentioned under ‘qualifications needed’, ‘job responsibilities’ and ‘skills profile’. It is a miracle that anyone gets selected for any position.

On a more generic plane, people learn to expand any response from a one-line statement to a multi-bulleted (and sub-bulleted) treatise. Let us say, as a new employee in Sales, you have a question, “How do you compute the total sales figures for the company?”. The simple response would be, “In the Sales Analysis application, use the summary function to add up all the numbers for all the product lines across all regions”. But, no, no…. that would be way too unsophisticated and look unprofessional. The correct response from a seasoned professional would be something like:

  • Open your computer
  • Start up your computer
  • Go to the application Sales Analysis
  • Login to the application (if unable to, go to step 1)
  • Search for ………..
  • …………..
  • If you have miraculously survived up to this point, please refer to the manual Sales-Accummulate-130.23 for further steps. Good luck.

There is an army of people in every organization, usually hiding in departments such as Process Improvement, Organization and Methods and other innovative names, making a living out of defining everything about nothing. Try and avoid them!