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Weighing visual output options for SQL Server business intelligence

A business intelligence solution can present data in a variety of ways, such as dashboards, scorecards and reports, but each form has a little something different to offer.

I like to categorize the output of a business intelligence (BI) solution into three broad categories:

  • visual output -- includes the reports, dashboards and scorecards that I’ll discuss in this article
  • analytical output -- more interactive data mining
  • alerts -- generated by the system in response to predefined criteria

Business intelligence dashboards are… well … dashboards. They are visual displays, often presented through a Web-based interface, that include gauges, graphs and charts. To put it more simply, they are visual depictions that help you see how close you are to predefined goals or metrics. A sales gauge, for example, might go into the red when sales volume is below a predefined level.

A dashboard is intended to drive managerial attention. By ignoring the items that are clearly “in the green,” you can focus your attention on more critical things, like the stuff “in the red.” Dashboards don’t provide details, although some BI systems may enable you to click through a gauge to see the underlying data, which becomes the beginning of an interactive data mining session.

Scorecards for business intelligence on the other hand can be thought of as report cards, similar to the ones you use to get in school. While they are another way of focusing managerial attention, they tend to be somewhat more detailed and numeric.

For example, you might see that you’re 75% of the way toward the quarterly sales goal, but 85% through the quarter’s shipping budget. Neither is a problem in and of itself, but together those two developments might be cause for concern. Will 15% shipping budget get you through the 25% sales goal that is left? This kind of visual display can help you spot such trends and patterns in a way that single-fact dashboard gauges don’t.

Finally, BI reports are the most granular, detailed form of visual output in a business intelligence system. Reports may be simple columnar-style reports like the ones you’ve no doubt used for years, or they may be more complex reports that involve charts and graphs as well as more detailed information. For example, a sales report that shows different regions’ sales volumes in a chart and then breaks that chart down into week-by-week numbers can help you spot the biggest problem areas. You can then immediately drill a level deeper to see where you should focus your attention to start solving the problem.

In all, this kind of visual BI output is primarily designed to drive top-level attention, not to provide the sole basis for decision-making. In other words, what you see on a dashboard or in a report should drive you to investigate further, seeking out root causes through the interrelated data that created the dashboard or report in the first place.

Find more BI basics from Don Jones and other technical experts by visiting our Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing Tips page.

Don Jones is a co-founder of Concentrated Technology LLC, the author of more than 30 IT books and a speaker at technical conferences worldwide. Contact him through his website at

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