Introduction

Data is undoubtedly priceless for any organization to have. It is used for all functions of a company. With the complexity and power of today’s Enterprise Resource Planning and Business Intelligence systems, unthinkable amounts of data are able to be gathered, processed, and reported on in a few clicks and keystrokes. With all of the information that organizations have at their fingertips, it becomes all too exciting to look at every piece of intelligence that one has the ability to pull. Let’s look at some examples:

“How are our sales doing this month? How were they last month? How were they this month last year? What about the percentage change of last month last year to last month this year? Let’s throw the sales for the past twelve months on there as another frame of reference. How about our inventory? What were our turns like in those time frames? How about carrying costs? Damaged product cost? Shipping costs? Dead inventory levels?”

Need I continue, or is this beginning to seem a bit familiar?

No matter the industry, and no matter whether it is in regard to products or services, data is often under-effectively over-reported. That is, too much information is provided and not enough of it leads to better decisions or new actions. I will openly admit that I love data. The more, the merrier. But I will also be the first to say this: Data is useless. Allow me to revise that: Data is useless, UNTIL it (1) has a purpose (2) is presented in an understandable fashion, and (3) is given to the correct people. These are the three P’s of reporting: Purpose, Presentation, and People.

Purpose

Purpose, the most important part of data. I will spend the most time on this, since it is the driving force behind reporting, but is so often neglected.

As somebody that runs many yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily reports, I know all too well that people always want more information. Because of this, I’ve learned to ask a simple question that people don’t often answer with their original explanation of a report. The question is “Why?”. What is the purpose of running the report? What do they really want to see? Do they really want to see two-thousand lines of data about customers, or do they really just want to see a trend within that two-thousand line group? Most often, it’s the latter.

It needs to be said, not as an insult to those who ask for reports, but to begin making data actionable, that very often people don’t even know exactly what they’re looking for. They come, well intentioned, with a vague idea of what they want to see. It is the report writer’s job, before even beginning to pull data, to help those people understand exactly what the question they’re trying to answer is. This cuts down on time wasted on pulling tons of data and helps the report writer organize the results in a way that answers the person’s question.

Time for a quick example of how this process worked in my professional setting.

One day, somebody in my organization came to me with a set of reports from a colleague in another state, and they wanted to determine the feasibility of incorporating the same reports into our company. The colleague’s organization was very similar in structure, and the goals of both companies matched up nicely. My coworker began to show me all of the reports. Admittedly, they were impressively robust and packed with information. However, a few things struck me about them. First, they looked intimidating to me, a person who usually likes to look at spreadsheets. Second, they seemed to be extremely time consuming to put together. Third, and most importantly, I turned to my coworker and simply asked something along the lines of, “So, what conclusions are they trying to draw, and what actions are they hoping to take from all of this information?” My coworker, who was excited about the reports upon first seeing them, quickly changed mindsets and replied, “You know what, maybe this is too much. Let’s not replicate these.” We decided not to adopt those reports, which ultimately would have caused us a lot more trouble than good.

**Remember: “Why?”**

Presentation

Some people are “numbers people.” I happen to be one of them. Forgive me, numbers people, as I speak on your behalf: We are good at reading large, complicated spreadsheets, and making connections between data to draw conclusions. This is not most people’s forte, though. Plus, why should valuable time be wasted trying to draw conclusions from complicated spreadsheets when the same conclusions can be drawn from shorter, easier to read spreadsheets? With tools like Microsoft Excel, it only takes a few more minutes, mouse clicks, and keystrokes to transform thousands of lines of data into a ten-line report.

So, numbers people and report writers, take your awesome, giant spreadsheets and do your best to make it simple. The simpler a report, the quicker it can be interpreted. The quicker it can be interpreted, the faster actions can be taken based on the information. Data is not actionable unless it is understandable.

Level of detail may vary based on who you’re sending your report to. If you’re sending a report to somebody on the executive team, it’s likely that it should be very short – only containing a few numbers that pertain to high-level decision making. On the other end of the spectrum, your everyday sales representative may need more detailed reports. For example, they might actually need a forty-line report showing data and trends for individual customers. If the report is going to multiple levels of the organization, consider subtotaling your data, which creates drillable levels. Then, your higher level managers will be able to see the high-level umbrella numbers, while your sales team will have the ability to drill down into specific customer information.

**Regardless of the recipient(s) of a report, the key to remember, like in many parts of life, the simpler, the better.**

People

Reports are not always, in fact they are very often not, run because somebody asked you to do a one-time collection of data. Many times there are reports that will be sent out monthly, weekly, daily, etc. For example, one may have a monthly sales email stating sales goals for the next month. When sending out reports like this – non-one-off reports, per se – it is prudent to consider your audience. A new question to ask: “Who, upon receiving this information, will be the most effective in drawing conclusions and taking actions accordingly?” For the example of monthly sales goals, the answer would probably be mid-level managers, as they would then have the opportunity to set objectives for their teams in order to ensure the achievement of the goal.

The “who” will change depending on the level and detail of data being presented, but one should be careful to avoid sending information to people who do not need it. This is for a few reasons. First, it’s a waste of time for the report writer to compile and send the data. Second, it’s a waste of time for people who won’t take action after reading the report. Third, those same people probably won’t actually take the time to read the report, since the information doesn’t pertain to them anyway. Finally, and this is key, people start to feel information overload easily. Often, information overload leads to a person not knowing how to extract the information to take action on, even when they are willing to take action. The last point is especially true because of the amount of information that life throws at all of us every day (even every second). When people start receiving ten reports a week when they really only need two, the value of those two needed reports is diminished. The reports become more of a chore than a helpful activity to take part in. Most people don’t need another reason to shy away from data and reports (except for us numbers people, of course), but they get another reason to do so each time they receive a report that they cannot take action on.

**Remember: “Who can take action using this information?”**

Conclusion

Data is useless. It’s just a bunch of names, numbers, and codes floating somewhere out there in cyberspace. That is, until it is made useful through the three P’s of reporting: Purpose, Presentation, and People. There is so much data in each organization’s database, but so little time to analyze all of it. Therefore, choose your reporting wisely. A single, well put together report could take a half hour – or even an hour or more – to compile all of the data and simplify it so it makes sense for the layperson; however, if that well-made report leads to an important business conclusion, answers a critical question, or forces a crucial action to occur, then that time is better spent on one report than on twenty reports full of random information, no matter how impressive they look.

Key Points:

  • The three keys to report writing are Purpose, Presentation, and People
    • Always have a purpose behind a report
      • “Why?”
    • Figure out the best and most efficient way to present that compiled data
      • The simpler, the better
    • Determine who is best suited to receive the information
      • “Who can take action using this information?”
    • Avoid information overload
    • Not all large reports are good reports
    • Data is not actionable unless it is understandable
    • People coming to you for reports (usually) have good intentions, help them through the process