Business intelligence appliance powers executive dashboards at Midwest ISO

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Written by: Hannah Smalltree

For an organization dealing with hundreds of thousands of data points, delivering executive dashboards in under a year had the potential to be a daunting task.

But that was the goal of the executive dashboard pilot project at the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (Midwest ISO), a regional power grid operator that supervises the infrastructure of one of the world's largest energy markets. The Carmel, Ind.-based nonprofit doesn't sell to consumers — rather, it administers the Midwest power market and infrastructure to ensure the continual availability of electricity to 15 states and one Canadian province. Since the start of its market operations in 2005, Midwest ISO has collected huge amounts of data, according to Todd Hillman, executive director for communications and stakeholder relations. The data is delivered via hundreds of reports, which operations executives used to parse through manually to evaluate metrics specific to their departments.

"Our footprint is nearly one million square miles," Hillman said. "For that footprint, we're basically doing analysis on a real-time basis, about every 90 seconds, for over 250,000 data points. You start to multiply that out for that type of geographical region — and you can see why our executives need one place to go where they can get concentrated and accurate information."

Traditional business intelligence software vs. dashboard appliances

So, last spring, the operations performance management department began evaluating the best way to deliver executive dashboards. The goal was to deliver a small set of concise, industry-specific operational metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) via an executive dashboard to Midwest ISO's operations managers, according to Anushree Bag, manager of performance assurance. Once the pilot was complete, the company would measure its success and potentially roll it out to executives in other parts of the organization. Part of the project's goal was also to begin "institutionalizing data delivery," Bag said — determining better ways to deliver information quickly to those who need it. For the pilot project, the team wasn't up for anything that would take too long — or cost too much.

"We wanted to come up with something relatively quickly — something not that expensive and quick to implement," Bag said. "The lowest total cost of ownership and fastest speed to market were two really important factors for us."

The team evaluated many of the major business intelligence (BI) software platforms before learning about dashboard appliances from an analyst firm. They discovered a BI dashboard appliance from Celequest, a vendor acquired in January 2007 by Ottawa-based Cognos Inc. Then called Celequest LAVA, the hardware appliance has since been re-launched as "Cognos Now!" It's designed to quickly develop, deliver and deploy dashboards, and it helped the team meet their goal quickly, Bag said.

"There were some classic BI tools which we were considering, but they would take longer to implement," she said. "We felt that for the pilot project, a plug-and-play appliance would fit our needs better."

Determining the content — and style — of executive dashboards

In conjunction with the technology evaluation, the team interviewed operations executives to determine the appropriate KPIs for the dashboard. Executives were very responsive in sharing their data needs, Bag said, and it helped that the chief operating officer was a sponsor of the project. It's critical to seek executive sponsorship before embarking on an interview process like this, Bag advised, so that managers understand the importance and purpose of the endeavor.

During the interviews, the team learned that the visual delivery style of the dashboard data mattered to executives as much as the content, Bag said. KPIs are often visually represented on executive dashboards through a quickly understandable image, such as a traffic stoplight that shows the health of a KPI with a red, yellow or green light, or other graphics, such as gauges, thermometers, pie charts or graphs. Executives wanted to discuss the data, the visual representation and the navigation of the dashboard, Bag said, a fruitful, yet time-consuming process.

"My advice is to get started on the KPI-generation process sooner rather than later, and talk about navigation as well when you discuss content," she said. "If at all possible, have a mock-up, or some type of prototype, to show your executives when you determine those KPIs."

After the team identified about 10 KPIs for the pilot project, they built the queries to deliver the metrics, pulling data from an operational data store and other source systems. The queries needed to be ready before the appliance's installation, Bag said, in order to make implementation go faster.

An executive dashboard delivered in days

In February 2007, Cognos came on site to assist Midwest ISO with the installation and implementation of the first dashboard. The first dashboard prototype was available within days, Bag said. It wasn't perfect and needed tweaking before it could go live, but it was an impressively fast start to the project, she said. In May 2007, the team rolled out the dashboard to the first 10 executives in operations.

It's still early to know the results of the pilot project, but initial feedback has been very promising, Bag said. Soon, the team will circle back to the executives currently using the dashboard to get their feedback. And word of the dashboard has spread fast, she added. Other groups, including finance, auditing and risk management, have expressed interest in having dashboards too.