How to build a dashboard in IBM Cognos 8.4.x?

As we engage with our hundreds of customers, one question that inevitably arises, is how do we build good dashboards?  The questions begs at least a cursory understanding of IBM Cognos 8’s capabilities and options. That being said, I am purposely not discussing capablities introduced in Cognos 10, like Business Insight, Business Insight Advanced, or Active Reports. Mainly due to the fact that many existing IBM Cognos customers have not upgraded their platform to IBM Cognos 10.1.  We will cover those tools in depth separately. That being said, with the exception of GoDashboard, all of the these techniques/descriptions also apply to IBM Cognos 10, extended of course by BI, BIA, and the Active Reports capability.

Cognos 8.4.x provides the following options for building dashboards:

Single Report Studio Report

One of the strengths that IBM Cognos 8 brings is the capability to design on an open canvas any combination of charts, maps, graphs, tables, or other information. A single report can source data from multiple queries or even data sources, and common filtering across different element is trivial to implement using common parameters. One of the benefits of this approach is the ability to design a report that can easily be exported to excel or pdf with all of its components. Subsequently, this output can be emailed, printed, or consumed in a variety of ways. With a little additional technical effort, this approach can be evolved to include dynamic choices for which charts are shown based upon prompt selections or on report control. There are other technical articles here on the ironsidegroup.com/news web site which discuss some of these techniques.

Portal Page/My Page Approach

IBM Cognos 8 provides the capability to build “Portal Pages” which can be delivered via Cognos Connection or via native integration with 3rd party portals, namely WebSphere, Sharepoint, or SAP EP.  You can also leverage parameterized urls to embed in non supported portals or other web applications. Bottom line is that any Cognos content you create is very easy to embed in other applications.

This particular approach involves building the pieces of your dashboard as separate components or reports. Rather than one Report Studio report for the whole dashboard, the authoring involves building the pieces of the dashboard separately, as independently authored reportlets.   For obvious reasons,  it is important to be consistent with parameter names, while authoring these reportlets.  This approach provides a bit more flexibility and approaches self service, but also allows for better reuse. We have a number of customers who have built a library of dashboard components, and either pieced them together to meet specific business needs, or let their users pick from the library of dashboard components or KPI’s, to construct personalized dashboards. There is a bit more technically involved in this approach but Cognos’s documentation is fairly strong in helping users and technical authors along.

One thing that we have run into that problematic is related to parameter (specifically dates) passing between portlets. One tip is to make sure that your “date” types are consistent when passing parameters between portlets. The other thing to mention is that it ok and desireable to build a “report” or dashboard component that functions as a control or filter across the other components. For a typical 6 up dashboard report, you would likely build 6 separate reports (or more if you like the library approach mentioned above) and a 1 filter or control report.

Go! Dashboard

Go!Dashboard was introduced in late 2008 and begins the process of moving Cognos into the Web 2.0 world offering a Adobe flash based presentation. “Go! Dashboard delivers dynamic and customizable dashboarding capabilities that enable end users to quickly create and personalize their dashboard from trusted Cognos assets with drag-and-drop ease.”  What this means is that GoDashboard begins to combine some of the strengths of the two above approaches. GoDash furthers the Author once consume anywhere philosophy. Charts, graphs, tables are all still created and designed in Report Studio, but GoDash is simply a flexible fluid presentation layer, allowing Report Authors and even Business Users to contruct either standard or customized “dashboards”, by choosing pieces of other Reports, to pull together into a single consolidated view of relavent info, regardless of the source. While we believe that GoDash is a step in the right direction, we would issue caution to widespread adoption.  We have been told by Cognos product management that GoDash content will upgrades seamlessly to Cognos 10’s Busines Insight. We would recccomend waiting until you upgrade to Cognos 10 before taking advantage of this capability. There some quirks with the interface, and the installation that lead us to this recommendation.

One other tip, which you will understand when you move to Cognos 10,  it is extremely important to appropriately name your objects in Report Studio. When you access a report from GoDash or Business Inights, having to figure out what Chart1, Chart2, Chart3 are is much more difficult that choosing “12 Mth Revenue Trend”  or Top 10 Customers.

Conclusion

As with any technical solution, the specific functional capabilites (like we have discussed here), are only 1 part of the 4 necessary to effectively design, deploy, and benefit from a dashboard strategy.  Understanding what information is relevant/important  to your business, quality conformed data, and effective presentation strategy, coupled with a technical understanding of the Cognos toolset are all equally important to deliver high value business applications.

We encourage conversation and will work to share our experiences as our exposure to Cognos 10 evolves.