I’ve said this many times before, but I’m kind of a data geek, so here we go again. I like looking at data and trying to decipher the story that the information is telling me. I like trying to solve problems by analyzing data. I was that kid in middle school who used masking tape to hold my glasses together at the nose bridge. It’s part of who I am, and I can’t help it. While arguably less flattering as a defining characteristic of my personality, this quirk has helped differentiate who I am as a professional in a very crowded marketplace.
But there are a few caveats to this state of “data geekdom.” First, ideally, the data has to be good. Second, it has to be the right set of data for the insights gleaned to have any basis in reality. The problem for most law firm leaders is that they dig into data with the assumption that they are reviewing the “right” data. More often than not, the data points are “out-of-the box” configurations that a developer somewhere decided were important, with little emphasis on customizing reporting mechanisms based on a firm’s needs.
As an example of how important this is, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the financial services industry was actually a trailblazing sector for innovation and technology. As options rapidly increased for consumers to access their private accounts and financials, the popularity and necessity of customer call centers also grew, which underscored the need for automated systems to support the customer service representatives. For instance, a customer would contact a commercial bank’s call center and the service rep would have a monitor system in place to bring all the information they needed about that customer together on one screen and facilitate the call. The system was adaptive, changing the information presented onscreen as the call progressed. At the time, this was revolutionary, but today we take it for granted.
Fast-forward 30 years and most firms are still struggling to capture compelling business intelligence about themselves. Until recently, most operated with a cadre of legacy operating systems, financial platforms and reporting technologies from different manufacturers (some of which are long-since extinct) that have no mechanism for connecting with each other, let alone automatically extracting and updating data points between systems. The disparate nature of these technologies has exacerbated the struggle to leverage data and display results in a reporting mechanism that helps direct the firm’s decision-making.
What Is a Dashboard?
A good dashboard puts the right information at the fingertips of the people who need it. Ultimately, a firm just needs a good dashboard. Analogous to the dashboard of an automobile that lets drivers monitor the major functions at a glance via an instrument panel, businesses have been leveraging data to monitor and track progress of projects, initiatives and overall business health for nearly two centuries. This use of data is one of the hallmarks of the industrial revolution that defined the 19th century.
Back in the heyday of financial services, what constituted a “dashboard” was clear. However, I find the term increasingly more confusing — and sometimes even misleading. This is because virtually every modern application comes with its own so-called “dashboard.” The consumerization of business technology has influenced — in a negative way, I might add — the definition of dashboard reporting.
For example, the term “dashboard reporting” is used to describe everything from the way your networks interact with you on social media to your vital signs and exercise habits as captured by your wearable technology to the presentation of personal finances through your online banking portal. Every technology-maker feels compelled to include the word “dashboard” in their product descriptions. Unfortunately, most of these dashboards, while visually interesting, offer little significant relevance or value.
Some law firms have fallen for the sales pitch, pouring a ton of investment into a dashboard — only to wind up presenting pretty pictures for which the staff struggle to find a practical purpose. However, a well-designed dashboard can be very effective and can contribute significantly to law firm efficiency. Remember those two caveats about my data geekdom? They apply to this as well.
What Makes a Good Dashboard?
The nexus of a quality dashboard is that it provides information that is not only compelling, but also is useful for decision-making. The speedometer of the car helps keep a driver informed about current speed, which is compelling intelligence if you’re driving through an area known for speed traps, but it’s also useful for decision-making if you need to be somewhere in less than three hours and your current rate of speed puts you there in four.
The point is that the most-useful dashboards are built with data indicators that satisfy multiple needs: 1) a need to comply with a set standard; and 2), balance that with a need to achieve a specific goal. Useful dashboards do not display everything but the kitchen sink. That’s not only unhelpful, it’s confusing. If the firm presents too much information in the dashboard, it risks overwhelming the user. If it presents too little, then it’s delivering questionable value. If it doesn’t provide the right information, then it lacks a purpose.
But what if you don’t have any dashboard reporting at all? I get this question all the time.
If you don’t already have a dashboard reporting system in place, the best way to figure out how to implement a system is to do an exhaustive audit of the data and information your firm is collecting and/or storing. If you don’t know whether you’re even capturing a certain set of data, how can you measure it and report on effectiveness? An audit can also help you identify gaps in your data systems and operational processes that limit the ability to build an effective dashboard and that can help firm leaders and managers build a business case for technology and system migration.
Once you’ve completed a data/information audit of your systems and processes and you’re comfortable that you know what you’re collecting, the next step is to figure out what you need. Do you need to know the realization rate of every partner or staffer in February? Probably not as compelling or necessary as it is in November and December, when collections can make or break a year. When law firms struggle with dashboards, it’s usually not because the content isn’t useful or valuable, but that the content doesn’t meet the need of the user at that time. Be mindful of those situations so you can build flexibility into the reporting system and certain important data points are at your fingertips when you need them.
As a law firm leader, it is important make a critical determination about what the picture of success looks like and the factors that shape this picture. The dashboard will have little effectiveness or usefulness until it reflects data that inform the picture of success. Here are some questions you may want to consider as you select the data points for your dashboard:
- What is the firm trying to accomplish?
- What are the firm’s strategic goals?
- What actions have to be taken to reach these goals?
- Which metrics can measure the success of these actions in terms of reaching the firm’s strategic goals?
Asking these questions will inevitably lead you to your ideal key performance indicators. These are the holy grail of business intelligence — the data points you need to add to your dashboard. It should go without saying (although, surprisingly, it doesn’t) that a dashboard isn’t meant for heavy-duty data analysis; instead, it serves people who want to see, at a glance, how things are going and what they should do about it.
So many options are available on the market to help you find a solution to build your complete dashboard reporting system, but you do yourself and your firm a huge disservice if you aren’t carefully vetting and critically analyzing what data you’re including in the dashboard. If they aren’t good data, or aren’t the right data, I don’t want anything to do with it. But I’ll gladly roll up my sleeves and help figure out how to fix it. I can’t help myself; I’m a data geek.
Jim Jarrell is Senior Vice President, Marketing & Business Development at Jaffe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JimJarrell.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.
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