Aircraft Cockpits vs Digital Dashboards
Recently, on Linkedin, a question was asked whether an xCelsius Dashboard is the same as an aircraft cockpit display. As both a Pilot and Flight Engineer (C-130) as well as 10 + year SAP BI vet, I wanted to take a moment and explain how different they are and how their usage is completely different in practice.
For me, the first major difference I want to explore between an Aircraft Cockpit and an xCelsius Dashboard (or any other type of online-interactive dashboard), is their concept or usage.
The aircraft cockpit, is, in general, designed to tell the pilot what is going on with the aircraft systems, the environment the aircraft is operating in and where the aircraft is in relation to where it is heading. So, for example, the basic systems, the pitot static system, is designed to work on detecting the changes in atmospheric pressure experienced as the plane ascends and descends in the atmosphere and is a real-time mechanical system. These changes are nearly always predictable and known in advance. If you go up, atmospheric pressure goes down. With a bit of math and adjustment, you can get a very accurate idea of how high you are, how fast you are going and how fast you are going up or down. In short, it is a highly predictable, engineered system that normally gives predictable results for a given set of inputs-you hope!
The cockpit of an airplane is there to ensure the pilot and crew can complete the mission, whether that be to deliver a load of cargo, fly a combat sortie, fly passengers from point A to B or simply take joyride.
In order to do these things, the cockpit, which in reality is composed of not only gauges and dials and digital displays but as well, the flight controls, engine controls and landing gear controls, as well circuit breaker panels, communication and navigation equipment.
Although it is possible to complete the mission with some of these devices malfunctioning, it generally requires everything to be working correctly in order to successfully complete the mission. Most ‘missions’ are carefully pre-planned before they are ever flown, and the pilots fly the mission with minimal changes to the plan. The in-flight replanning capabilities are limited by the existing circumstances, i.e., fuel onboard, location of the aircraft, nearest airport, etc.
What-if scenarios are quickly explored and decisions made. Once the mission is completed and the plane is on the ground, the cockpit is essentially back in a zero state, meaning, it has no information nor further exploration duties - in short, it is turned off and does not continuously receive data inputs in order to be ready for the next mission (although maintenance may occur).
An xCelsius dashboard, by contrast, relies on a complex set of technologies, including Excel, Crystal Reports, SAP Business Warehouse, LiveOffice, and a large number of widgets and other technologies that rely first and foremost on the previous imagining of a near infinite variety of scenarios and outcomes.
The system operates in delayed or near-real time (mostly delayed) and if you forget to imagine the right question, i.e., in a retail environment, at what level do I want to see alerts on MRP signals, it won't warn you that you forget to ask that question? Although all the parts to this system are as mechanical as the Pitot Static system on the plane, the alert settings, their meanings, their interpretation and the follow-up actions required and taken are not engineered at all - they are business decisions and likely to be different from one business environment to another and from one company to the next.
Here is probably where the greatest difference is between an aircraft dashboard and an xCelsius dashboard.
An xCelsius dashboard, although very complex, is designed to reflect information as it exists at a single point in time and to allow you to explore the results of various assumptions using a variety of sliders and other data input devices.
There really is no idea of a mission - it is hard to tell when you have completed anything and instead, it provides the input for further action or insight. The equivalent of pre-planning a mission here is the design process that occurs when you build it . You could also potentially equate the exploration a user does with it as pre-planning, but it, unlike an airplane pre-flight plan, which is highly defined and engineered by both experience and government authorities, what you do with a xCelsius dashboard is limited only by your imagination, and has no right or wrong answer to it.
We Don’t Fly in Formation
Although I can’t say I have seen every possible version of an xCelsius cockpit, I can say I have not seen an equivalent to several dashboards flying in formation!
Aircraft operate in a highly complex environment, full of interdependent systems that have to work together. Take for example, a flight of four F-16s that are flying in formation. Although each aircraft is fully capable of and is operating independently, the 4 ship formation depends, among a host of other things, on the ability of the pilot to anticipate and react to the actions of the other pilots in the formation.
To my knowledge, the autopilots on F-16s are not able to fly in a tight formation and do a diamond roll (might be wrong on this one, but have never heard of it). However, the combined capabilities of the aircraft, including radar, navigation and here is where it is completely different from an xCelsius dashboard, the input from AWACS controller’s and other sources of external information, allow the aircraft to execute their mission with greater effectiveness than any single aircraft could accomplish on its own.
In addition, the information the aircraft cockpit (grouping a multitude of systems here for clarity) is able to receive and synthesize from the electronics onboard the weapons system, mean the cockpit is able to tell the pilot how he has done in real time with highly unstructured data.
Elements of Teamwork
The nearest similar business scenario you encounter is the teamwork required between the various departments of a business, such as Marketing, Sales, Finance and Manufacturing. Although not perfectly analogous to the 4 ship flight of F-16s flying in formation, there is an element of team-work involved, if all goes as planned.
For example, the sales dashboard might reflect marketing qualified leads coming down the marketing funnel and the number of sales qualified leads coming into the sales funnel. Although not as exciting as an F-16 flight of four, nevertheless, the requirement for the lead, in this case, the sales manager, to react to and communicate with the marketing manager, are similar in nature, although obviously not in execution.
Synthesizing External Data
Where additional work is needed is in the incorporation of external data and the ability and willingness to share information with business partners. The system is relatively open, i.e., it can receive information from the web or data providers such as D&B; these external systems are rarely focused on providing exactly the information needed by a particular business in a particular scenario, unlike AWACS, which shares a common objective with the fighters.
Some Data Is Spoofing
To take just one example, a certain market website exist for lysine, a major animal feed supplement. Although the information provided by this website is available to all, the information can be and often is manipulated by competitors. Any dashboard incorporating this information in the decision cycle is likely to lead to false conclusions.
How They Are Similar
No Difference Between style post would be complete without a discussion of how the things being compared are similar. Those two things being an Aircraft Cockpit versus an Executive Dashboard.
Both Provide Support for Decision Makers
Both pilots and business decision makers are performing data analysis in their decision making process. The pilot is executing according to a pre-planned flight profile, while the business owner may be running a business according to an annual business plan, while gathering business process execution information, which is displayed in an executive dashboard.
Both Focus on Key Performance Indicators
The pilot won't actually call the information his instruments are displaying as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) but they are. Just like there are many Key Metrics in a business, of which only a few are really KPIs, the same is true on aircraft. They are all important, but some are more important than others. Professional judgement, derived from years of training and thousands of hours of experience, allows you to tell the difference.
Both Allow You to 'Dig Deeper'
As a C-130 Flight Engineer, one of my key responsibilities was to analyze data, especially Red Flashing Lights, pulsating torque meters, fuel gauges, and a hundred other system indicators. I was then responsible for deciding on a course of action to deal with any inflight emergencies that came up. Usually, this was no big deal, just run of the mill engine failures, fires, oil leaks and other fun things. The challenge came when emergencies got stacked one upon the other.
Too Much Information Can Overwhelm
During simulator rides, the Flight Instructor's loved to throw one emergency after another at you, to keep you awake. The goal was to not get overwhelmed, and learn to prioritize your response. The first time you experience 'overwhelm' can be very stressful, then you learn how to get ahead of the plane.
Executive's are often faced with similar, though probably not life threatening situations. They must not only have access to the data, the data must be 'right', and they almost always are under extreme time pressure, facing multiple, conflicting signals.
Well designed Management Information Systems (MIS), especially Management Cockpits, are made for this exact purpose. It allows the entire Executive Team to dig down, explore and slice and dice information to make data driven executive decisions to keep the company on-track.
Both Systems Provide Big Picture Views
While a pilot is focused both on the high level goal of the flight, i.e., get from here to there safely, the C-Suite is focused on the high level situation of the business.
Data Visualization Systems
Both are data visualization systems, each designed to take advantage of the fact that humans can process visual data 60,000 times faster than written information. They are both designed to deliver actionable insights. They both help their users make informed decisions, even under stressful conditions.
Real Time Data
Here, the two systems are only partially the same. The aircraft cockpit is mostly 'real time', while a Business Dashboard may or may not be, depending up on the business requirement. Both systems are designed to help make data driven decisions.
Complex Data Manipulation
Both types of systems deal with very complex, often contradictory, information. The data visualization software is only part of the story of how different types of dashboards, i.e., Strategic Dashboards, or in the case of an airplane, the Glass Cockpit, which often contains a highly complex data presentation layer that integrates multiple data streams and sensors. The other part of the story is that Engineers have designed and tested both systems, to discover what works best under various business scenarios or flight profiles.
Aerospace Approach To Designing Your Executive Dashboard
If you're not getting the information you need from your systems, then you should know about our engineered approach to designing, developing and delivering Executive and Operational Dashboards using the latest Dashboarding technologies. Our process knows that our measurement of success is whether your End Users accept and use our Digital Dashboards in their daily business. We have deep expertise in SAP S/4 HANA enabled digital dashboards.
Business Processes Change
While an airplane cockpit stays somewhat the same over the lifespan of its operation, business processes change, often, sometimes radically so. That's why Dashboard Design is such important task. When designed right, key stakeholders are kept better informed, and the entire team can perform better.
Types of Dashboards We've Designed
Our team of Senior Dashboard Designers have designed the following types of dashboards:
- Project Dashboards
- Data Dashboards
- Sales Team Dashboards
- Human Resources Management Performance Dashboards
- Warehouse Management Dashboards
- Production Planning and Execution Dashboards
- Analytical Dashboards
Get SAP S/4 HANA Consulting Support
If you're ready to get some help with your dashboard design, just click the button and complete the SAP HANA Project consulting request form.
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