Data goes in, and information comes out. While business intelligence-enabled dashboards are becoming an increasingly common way to peruse and act on that information in real time, reports are still the reliable standard. Intelligently deployed reporting can reveal the potential for cost reductions, pinpoint loss, and function as an early warning system for operational deficiencies in an organization. Conversely, ineffective reporting can burden decision makers and lead to expensive errors. If reporting is poorly planned, the thirst for information can lead to drowning in it. Our second segment in this business essentials series provides some questions to ask as you organize your business and its reporting priorities.
- What kinds of report will your decision makers need?
This seems like an obvious question. Yet too often the specific goals for reporting are left undefined by leaders at the outset. This occurs because a reporting need that is self-evident to one person seems irrelevant to another. These assumptions frequently result in reports that rapidly grow out of anyone's control while simultaneously becoming meaningless to everyone. The better path is to have your executive and management teams come to a common understanding of the information needed to guide various areas of the organization. Organically out of these collaborations will come reports that are purpose-driven, clear in scope, and advantageous to their owners. An added benefit of defining your reporting needs early is that they will inform the design of your chart of accounts, making sure that the data going in can generate the most useful information.
- What is needed, and what would be nice to have?
Not every piece of information is mission-critical, and sometimes, even if the information is there, the time and resources to act on that information don't exist. There's no reason to burden your system and your analysts by generating reports that will just be buried on a desk without ever generating action. Prioritize your goals, and let that guide the creation of information you need to achieve them. High-value reports will often be customized and fine-tuned to a top level of quality. On the other hand, nice-to-have reports will take less effort and can often be less specific in purpose. Most business management software comes with built-in reports that can satisfy less critical needs. Explore these, and see which ones might provide what you need without the costs associated with re-inventing the wheel.
- Who needs to receive which reports?
Plenty of money and resources can be lost through inefficient report delivery alone. When time is of the essence, late reports mean inaccurate information, leading to a chain reaction of wasted effort. Moreover, the right report delivered to the wrong person can compromise the organization's financial stability. Identifying who needs to consume what information will enable you to design efficient and secure report-routing. Advance planning will also help you define who needs access to what areas of the system. If you determine that there are enough people who just need reports but no other access, it might reduce your software licensing costs to consider a report distribution system. Either way, understanding the exact need will allow you to gauge the most beneficial set of solutions.
- Do you need to combine reports - or reporting data - from multiple systems?
If you need reports based on data from more than one system, it's important that those systems be able to converse easily with one another. If your central enterprise management software is cloud-based, it's likely that it will be able to interact elegantly with other modern systems via the use of special built-in translators. At a minimum, you'll want your software to be able to trade data using scheduled export/import routines so that your reports update on their own. Without either of these capabilities, people in your organization will be burdened with the time-consuming and error-prone task of manually re-typing or copying data from multiple reports into combined ones. Ensuring data compatibility will reduce the cost and frustration of hand-built reporting.
- Which reports need to be distributed automatically?
In many cases, reports can be generated as needed by the people who require the information. However, several key reports typically need to be run - and ideally delivered - on a routine basis. When automation and distribution are approached as afterthoughts to the overall reporting process, the timeliness of the reports and their ease of use tends to suffer. If your organization intends to automate report creation and/or distribution, you'll want to evaluate enterprise software that does these functions inherently or offers an integrated solution. So when you're thinking about the reports you'll need (the 'what') and the individuals that will use them (the 'who'), make sure to also consider their creation (the 'how') and destinations (the 'where') for a comprehensive reporting plan.