BI Technology

Everyone Hates Reports—What People Want Is Answers

Early in my career, thanks to some great managers, I was fortunate to have landed in a position with the responsibility of regularly presenting the performance of the business to the CEO and her executive team.  

Every Tuesday morning for the CFI meeting (I never figured out what this acronym stood for) as well as on a monthly basis at the Monthly Operating Review I’d provide a performance update.  

I must admit it was nerve-racking for a young kid to walk into a room full of successful and smart business leaders and tell them how the business was performing.  

I regularly burned the midnight oil to ensure the data was correct, my presentation was crisp, and that I was prepared to answer the inevitable questions that would arise during the meetings.  This last part was, by far, the most challenging.

More on this later.

While I was officially an analyst on the Enterprise Business Intelligence (EBI) team, the bulk of my time was spent preparing reports for these meetings.  An EBI Analyst’s job was to analyze the business and gather insights which would inform the strategic direction of the company.  Unfortunately, there was little time for this sort of work.

Pulling data, organizing it into reports and practicing for my presentation was a full time job.

Why did these things consume so much time? Here’s a quick summary of the typical activities that needed to be done on a daily basis:

  • Modify and run SQL queries to pull data from data warehouse
  • Open multiple “monster” Excel files (this gave me a nice 20 minute break to grab some coffee)
  • Save SQL results to Excel files (which made the files even more monstrous)
  • Make sure file links, vlookups and array formulas were all valid (I seem to remember some fun 8 hour “search and replace” parties)
  • Update multiple charts in daily, weekly and monthly Excel reports
  • Copy/paste charts into PowerPoint and make it look nice

Sound familiar to anyone?  I hope I’m not the only one that has this sort of thing on my resume (misery loves company!)

Sure, it required a lot of work, but at the end of the process something of value had been produced and I had some pretty nice looking reports that would help tell a story of business performance to our company’s executive team.  

Life was great...sort of.

As my experience in these meetings began to build up, I started to get this feeling that I was trying to “fit a square peg into a round hole.”

Let me explain.  

When walking the executive team through the presentation, each chart would elicit a slew of questions that the chart didn’t quite answer.

“What about for this line of business?”

“How does average length of stay compare to revenue?”

“Can you show me the detail behind that?"

Despite the fact that I’d put a ton of work into building these reports, never once was I surprised when an exec asked a new question.  

Why was I not surprised?  After all, I was the one spending all this time preparing reports that answered certain pre-existing questions. 

Was I crazy for doing all this work with the knowledge that I would always get a stack of questions that my work didn’t answer?  

I’d like to think that I wasn’t crazy.  The reason that I was not surprised by these additional questions is that they were a natural representation of the way humans think.  We see something interesting and we want to explore further by asking questions.  

This is how we solve problems.  

Pausing this process to spend days pulling and organizing data and formatting reports seemed like such a hindrance to this spirit of exploration.  This all seems very obvious.  So why was I stuck in this “square peg / round hole” universe?  Here are a couple key reasons:

  • I was operating with a “report centric” mindset (reports are the currency for answering questions). Which was largely because...
  • The available BI & Analytics technologies of the time didn’t allow for a fast and accessible way to do ad-hoc exploration against large, comprehensive datasets

The good news is that technology is allowing us to rethink traditional approaches for answering questions and providing insights to the business.  This is ushering in a new era where reports are being replaced by answers.  

Recently, in a conversation with some folks at a very large company (100K+ employees), somebody mentioned that they have more reports than people!  

Imagine the cost in dollars, process and time devoted to these reports.  Next time somebody asks a business question, given the effort that goes into creating and maintaining reports and the lag in delivering them, consider whether a report is actually the best vehicle for providing an answer.  

If what the questioner really wants is an answer to a question, then why not quickly give them an answer and move on to the next question?   

Better yet, give them a way to answer their own questions, which will free up even more of your time to ask and answer your own questions!

There is much innovation happening right now within the realm of self-service analytics.  Look at what’s out there and home in on the options that best allow you to push the process of answering questions to the edges of the organization.  Beware of solutions that focus on providing incremental improvement to the traditional model.  This approach, of course, being one that relies on a relatively small team of data experts to provide answers to the users throughout the business that want answers to questions.  Free these data experts to focus on enhancing and improving the data.  Technology has outpaced the traditional model and it’s time to usher in a new, better way to answer questions of your data.