Most companies have heaps of data sitting around, tucked away in various servers and applications, but that information can be tough to analyze. Dashboards help make sense of the numbers, taking raw data and transforming them into dynamic visuals: bar charts that rise and fall to mirror sales or gauges that plunge into the red when shipments are late. Keep in mind that to be truly effective, dashboards must be fed a stream of current data. And technical skill is required to pull in statistics from multiple programs. But once a dashboard is set up, you'll be able to constantly monitor the numbers that matter most.

Best For: Spiffing Up Excel

What it is: A program, made by Business Objects, that takes data from Excel documents and turns them into animated gauges, pie charts, and graphs

What's cool: It's easy to learn. Even companies without IT departments can probably get this up and running in less than an hour. It performs a "what if" analysis that automatically reshapes the graphics to let you see what would happen if, say, sales didn't meet expectations.

Drawbacks: It's only as good as the spreadsheet beneath it, and it's difficult to change the formulas in that spreadsheet once you've started using Xcelsius. It won't import data from other applications unless you upgrade to the workgroup or enterprise editions, which requires a lot of help from IT.

Price: From $195. The workgroup edition costs $7,500, and pricing for the enterprise edition is custom.

Best For: Monitoring Your Cash Flow

What it is: A new Web-based application that includes a dashboard that tracks receivables and payables in a calendar format. Enter information from bills and invoices, and it displays when the money comes in and when it goes out.

What's cool: CashView gives you a clear view of your cash flow at a glance, monitoring expected receivables and likely expenditures (such as payroll). Plus, it helps you go paperless. E-mail or fax documents to CashView, and it archives an image of the bill, invoice, or canceled check.

Drawbacks: So far, CashView integrates only with QuickBooks. Companies that use other accounting programs would have to transfer the data back and forth by hand.

Price: $1 per document stored

Best For: Keeping Tabs When You're Traveling

What it is: A Web-based program that produces slick animated gauges, maps, pie charts, and graphs. It can import data from Excel and databases that have been converted into the standard SQL format.

What's cool: Unlike many dashboards, this one lets you easily tinker with the visuals--changing a gauge into a bar graph, for example. Plus, it can send you e-mail alerts when a certain number exceeds a limit that you specify. Because it's on the Web, you can check it from anyplace that has Internet access.

Drawbacks: Someone in your IT department will have to set this up for you before you can customize the visuals.

Price: A setup fee of $7,500 for up to 10 users, with a yearly maintenance fee of $1,500 and up

Best For: Tracking HR Statistics

What it is: A specialized dashboard that transforms stats like head count, productivity, and attrition into colorful graphs and dials

What's cool: It comes with a few basic templates, so you can get a simple HR dashboard up and running in less than a day. You can import data from virtually any source. It can be customized to send real-time e-mail alerts when numbers exceed certain thresholds.

Drawbacks: It's not cheap. And importing data from some programs might require consulting help from Corda.

Price: $29,995 to buy the program for 10 concurrent users. A subscription starts at $15,000 for a three-year term.

Best For: Do-it-yourselfers

What it is: A set of Web-based applications with a built-in dashboard tool to track key indicators selected from a drop-down menu

What's cool: Many customer relationship management applications now come with dashboards. But NetSuite's is particularly useful, given that it tracks not just sales and marketing data but also accounting, inventory, and e-commerce figures. Users customize their dashboards with data they have permission to see, so the CFO might be able to chart the progress of the entire sales team, while salespeople can graph only their own performance.

Drawbacks: The graphics are very basic, and it's very tough to import data from other sources into the dashboard.

Price: $499 per month, plus $99 per user per month

Best For: Heavy-duty users

What is it: A sophisticated tool for creating companywide dashboards that is sold as a combination of software and hardware. Its gauges, dials, and graphs can be programmed to refresh every few seconds and pull data from almost any source.

What's cool: Cognos allows companies to track data from every aspect of the business--sales, manufacturing, support, finance, you name it--in one place and share specified metrics with the entire company. Data can be organized in a variety of graphically useful ways, including animated rising and falling bars and three-dimensional graphics. Cognos also offers a special version that integrates with the Salesforce CRM application.

Drawbacks: This tool was designed for fairly large companies, with IT departments capable of pulling together data from many applications.

Price: A midsize business should expect to pay about $75,000 to set it up.

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