One of the key challenges business face is getting accurate and real-time information about their own businesses out of their own IT and software systems -- information that can actually be of use in day-to-day decision-making.

A CFO, for example, may be able to churn out a report on current sales, expenses, new leads, and average cash flow. But what if he wants to switch the date range so he can compare metrics over various time periods? Making that change could involve several hours and three phone calls to IT to get to that new number.

For reasons such as this, real-time visibility of data can have a surprisingly significant impact on a company's operations. An operations executive who is able to see the current status of the company's open orders for its five top-selling products can easily spot fluctuations in demand -- and immediately adjust production or supply chain activities as a result. Or, a CFO wanting to compare sales and revenue metrics over various time segments might notice that sales in a certain product line are declining -- even though leads have remained constant. In a happier scenario, a marketing executive could spot which campaigns resulted in the highest number of closed deals - and share that information with the sales division.

There are a number of reasons for why so many executives are unable to make such connections. Many software systems' analytical functions, and even reporting functions, can require extensive support from IT to use property. Also, data in most companies tends to reside silo-fashion throughout an enterprise. In any case, when this information is finally made available, it is rarely tailored to an individual user's job functions or needs.

To circumvent this awkward system, some companies have begun to adopt the "dashboard," dashboard, a tool that offers executives individual and customizable access to the data they need.

If you haven't seen a dashboard, it can be tricky to visualize. One simple analogy is the customized home page most people have set up in their browsers. These typically have news links, movie reviews, stock quotes from a portfolio, or even a cartoon of the day. You can drill down on some of this information to get more detail - such as whether a "critics choice" movie is playing at a nearby theater.

With the dashboard, instead of your stock quotes, you might have your top pending deals. Instead of local movie times, you might have directions and other notes regarding the sales call next on your itinerary. The metrics can range across a variety of types of data, including accounts payables, lead conversions for a particular marketing campaign, progress at reaching a sales quota, and the company's bank balance. Companies can set access to the data depending on the job title and function, and the limits of what it wants viewable across the enterprise.

Dashboards can also facilitate collaboration within an organization - another surprising challenge that many businesses have yet to overcome. That example of the marketing director sharing new campaign data with the sales team? In many organizations such communication rarely happens as sales and marketing tend to be rigidly compartmentalized.

Or consider another function: project management. One common set of real time key performance metrics sent to engineers makes it possible to "manage by dashboard" by making sure all employees are working off the same data and priorities.

Despite these clear advantages, dashboards aren't for everyone.

For starters, much depends on what software infrastructure the company has. Many applications already have dashboard technology built-in. However, if there are numerous point solutions -- for example, one for accounting and one for sales -- this may mean numerous dashboards, which can be confusing and cumbersome for users. One possible solution is to use integration technologies to tie together the data of multiple applications, providing a single view. There are tools to do this automatically or you may be able to build some of it yourselves. Ask your software vendor what dashboard technologies they provide. Even more effective is to move to an integrated application that ties together multiple departments. This makes it easy to provide executives with a single dashboard integrating all the key information they need.

When rolling out dashboards, there are a few simple precepts to keep in mind. First of all, work with your users to find out which metrics would offer them and/or their departments the most benefit. Collate that information to provide a good common starting point for each user type. You also need to decide how much uniformity you want -- it is great to have people working off the same information, but you also want some leeway for people to personalize it to make it work best for them. Also, try to start simple -- don't overwhelm people with information. As you see success, you can iteratively roll out improvements.

Finally, it is important to make sure the data behind the dashboard is valid -- as they say, garbage in, garbage out. A bad habit developed in many organizations is that when they see data in a system that looks faulty, they take it out of the system and alter it in Excel. If this happens, your dashboard becomes "untrustworthy." Make sure a proper process -- and discipline -- is in place to correct data inside the system so you can trust the information you see on your screen.

IT is about information - not just technology. Providing real-time, at-a-glance information with drill-down to the data behind it is one of the best ways you can improve the decision-making in your organization.