TORCH THE SPREADSHEETS! DATA IS BEAUTIFUL, DON’T LET UNPRODUCTIVE SPREADSHEET STRANGLE THE DATA.

Some surveys suggest half of all decisions made by CEO’s are based purely on a hunch, with no substantive information to back them up. Yet, not all executives are equally good at hunches, it is logical that many will make decisions with a lower level of risk associated with them.

In a global context where decisions need to be made at lightning speed, having the right information at the right time is critical to business survival and prosperity. Information agility leads to customer responsiveness and agility. In the interest of time, this information needs to be relevant and well presented to enable the executive to make decisions fast.

Hence one of the most vital components of any business — and invariably the most neglected areas — is reporting. This is not to be confused with the standard tabular reporting you get in your inbox every day / week / month which tells you in painstaking detail how (un)successful the business is performing. Invariably after spending a large amount of time pouring over the spreadsheet, you still don’t have a definitive idea about how to steer the business to either do better or to course correct.

The fact is, to remain relevant and current amidst a volatile global reality requires knowing what actions to take, minute-by-minute.

Many organisations do have the capability to produce rich visual reports — using the available tools they have procured — but many times their tools are either not generally available or the reports are not accessible to everyone. Additionally, it is the perception of many business users that the current tool set is not sufficient for their needs — or they find it inefficient that as a business user they cannot perform data discovery and generate their own dashboards.

Also, there must be an overall structure to business data reporting, where layers cascade into successive layers of the organisation. To illustrate, if revenue drops, it needs to indicate what drives it. If customer acquisition drops, it needs to indicate what drives it. If NPS drops, the executive needs to understand why. This translates into ever more granular layers of insight, enabling executives at their respective levels address the changes they need to make to address concerns or risks.

With the space around business intelligence and data visualisation becoming more competitive and arguably more saturated, many organisations turn to the likes of Gartner and Forrester for guidance around which tool to procure in order to solve their growing reporting needs.

In the case of Gartner, they evaluate vendors based on thirteen capabilities across three categories:

  • Enable — Primarily how the platform integrates with other platforms, platform administration, meta data management, development and integration, modelling and cloud deployment.
  • Produce — The ability for interactive exploration, dashboard and content creation, centralised reporting and traditional styles of analysis.
  • Consume — How the end user is able to consume the final report or dashboard on their given platform of choice.

What is apparent from the report is that less incumbent vendors are making better inroads into the organisations as they are able to meet business users’ bigger demands for data exploration and visualisation. The challenge these vendors face is that many of the incumbent vendors still control the vast majority of the IT budget and more importantly the underlying data in a tightly governed and siloed fashion. This in itself creates additional frustration for the business users with access to capable tools and don’t have access to the data to leverage these tools.

One challenge all the vendors face is commoditisation of their solutions. Amazon has been aggressively driving down the cost of data storage and processing, thus making it cost effective to move from traditional on-site to cloud based infrastructure. Baring all the concerns around security and risk associated with the move from the traditional on premise to the cloud based solution, many organisations have embraced the move with new purely cloud based organisations being founded. Coming back to the business intelligence content; this past year saw Amazon make a move to start commoditising that industry through the launch of the AWS QuickSight. It joins the ranks with Microsoft Power BI in a similar price point which reduces the costs significantly, thus allowing for data exploration and visualisation to be far more pervasive.

Irrespective of the chosen solution, the main question to ask is this: “Is the solution able to help the business user make smarter decisions quicker to grow the organisation and to ultimately benefit the customer by giving them a better product or experience?” In many cases, just having the solution is not enough, making the right data available in a way that can be effectively consumed is critical. Once both have been combined, the final step is to empower the users to collaborate in order to foster knowledge sharing.

Below is an example of the various steps required in order to expose data to business users in the form of a report or visualisation.

The above diagram highlights the complexity of combining multiple data sources into a logical whole in order to expose the underlying data to the data consumers.

In order to succeed with data by leveraging rich reporting and visualisation, the following steps are required:
• Define a reporting framework and socialise with all stakeholders.
• Identify the required data, both currently and in the future, and map it back to the reporting framework.
• Conceptualise the required reports and dashboard with relevant stakeholders. 
• Build the reports and dashboards iteratively with the stakeholders to ensure complete buy-in and acceptability.
• After delivery, schedule continuous improvement sessions to ensure reports and dashboard stay current with stakeholder needs.

In conclusion, once you have all the data available and you have the most relevant tools, ensuring the reports or visualisations help the business user make effective decisions is the key priority. Achieving this will ensure business success.