Corporate Dashboards Were TPS Reports Once

A dashboard can be loosely defined as a centralized reporting system. More specifically, the most common definition found online resembles something like “an executive information system”.

Back in my days as a Sales Analyst for ACNielsen, I consulted for Philip Morris creating “dashboard” reports every Monday morning for the marketing and sales departments (we called them Toplines). As an aside, it was an odd job. Even back in the 90’s New York City was pretty much smoke-free in office buildings, with the notable exception of the Philip Morris building. They had this wild underground cafeteria with no windows and loads of people smoking all the time, which always struck me as odd. You’d think an above-ground cafeteria with proper ventilation would have made more sense?

Anyway, AC Nielsen sold PM syndicated (or audit) data that they collected by auditing convenience stores and other outlets that sold cigarettes. This was an ugly process where they actually sent people into c-stores to count the number of cartons left in inventory to get an idea of exactly how many cartons had sold since the last audit. Scanner technology (bar code readers like at your local supermarket) just didn’t exist in c-stores, corner smoke shops, small delis, or mom-and-pop stores at the time, so audits were the only way to get a bead on sales. These tallies were then entered into huge databases and this information was delivered to Philip Morris using an “online” interface.

I quoted online because back then it was a closed system that required a dial-in to a series of ACN phone numbers, and required the use of a specialized set of arcane software. Right about the time I came on board they started testing a program called NITE (Nielsen’s Interface to Excel) which enabled you to pull the sales data directly into Excel, opening up a whole new frontier of application development through the use of Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications, but I’ll get to that later.

Each Monday my peers and I would sit in the Philip Morris offices and pull this data off of the closed system I mentioned, physically copy and paste it into huge spreadsheets, summarize the information by totaling columns, and then write an analysis of the data which we would present to the Philip Morris marketing teams. There were so many humans touching every step of this process that the chance for error was enormous, and if often happened. Tobacco sales were so big back then that a single decimal out of place was a million dollar mistake. Therefore, I sought ways to automate as much of this process as I could, which not only made our jobs as analysts easier, but it reduced the chances for errors. The silliness and wastefulness of this process is actually what drove me to become a developer.

I know, it was a pretty long and way boring story, but it illustrates a good point. A lot of work goes into producing reports that give executives truly actionable and relevant information, especially in a format that they can actually understand. In my yarn above, the reports summarized sales data that enabled PM to gauge the success of marketing campaigns, follow brand trends, stay on top of competitive threats, etc. Oh, and by the way, I also did the same type of work for Carter Wallace (condoms and deodorant), L’Oreal (hair care and cosmetics), and Wyeth (suppositories, vitamins, analgesics, cough syrup and lip balm). Quite a mix of CPG’s huh?

These reports (made famous as TPS reports in the movie Office Space) were invaluable to the PM organization and were a complete and total pain in the behind to put together. However, when ACNielsen introduced their NITE product, it allowed us to automate the retrieval of these large data sets, and then automate summary reports, graphs, and link these spreadsheets to entirely different applications like PowerPoint that made creating presentations a snap. The technological advance of being able to directly interface with the ACN databases from within Excel exponentially increased our ability to deliver accurate information within a much smaller window of time.

Now enter the Internet. It was around back then, but it wasn’t an accepted and pervasive medium throughout corporate America. Companies were more concerned with limiting their employee’s access to it rather than finding ways to use it in to their advantage. At that time, while most companies had websites, only a small number of them had Intranets or similar internal systems that allowed information sharing within an organization. Once online technologies like ASP were made more mainstream through standardization of server technology, “it was on”.

The web allows organizations to interface with almost any system within their corporate infrastructure, and as database technology becomes faster and cheaper, archiving data is becoming faster, cheaper, and easier. Couple this with Flash, Ajax, new browser technologies, and faster connections, and you’ve got an infrastructure that can generate truly robust and dynamic reporting systems delivered to any computer on earth using the Internet.

I’ve embraced this technology and the information sharing methodology in my work here at ReachFarther. Whether it’s helping jetBlue Airlines spec out their Intranet and reporting systems, or building a thorough and fast reporting system for KaBOOM!, the experience I gained in the 90’s is an invaluable foundation on which my development theory is based. Only through seeing how it was done, the old, long, and tedious way, did I see the opportunity before me.

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