Today in businesses, we are not short of data. There are more than enough data points available through multiple channels for us to organize, analyze and review to our heart’s content or discontent as the case may be. Knowledge, insights and getting to actionable recommendations by sifting through this voluminous data is the difficult part. This is where effective Business reporting (or management reporting or enterprise reporting) can serve as a medium to provide knowledge in a form that enables the key-stakeholders to make informed decisions at the right time for sustained organizational success.  Management Reporting is an art and there is no single common method or set of steps to get this right. What does help though is keeping in mind the real goal behind all the reams of business reports you generate – enable the leadership to understand quickly what is going on in the business and to decide what to do with it. The business operations team can act as a primary driver in this area through creating and fine-tuning the business reporting process in the organization.

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely ~ E. O. Wilson

I have been doing business reporting for many years now and have to keep reinventing my style to suit the organization I work with every so often. However, I have found the following common considerations useful for making this function effective:

Consideration #1: Focusing on what’s Important –

Take some time to define the goal or the purpose of the report. To do this you need to sit with the primary intended audience of the report and agree on the area of decision-making that they want the report to support – it could be financial approvals, resource allocations, operational planning, strategic directions, opportunity qualifications etc. Once you have the purpose, focus on the primary audience themselves – what is their working style preferences (highlights vs. details), understanding level (use of terminology and technical complexity), position in the organization (authority for info provided and decisions to be made) and priorities (to determine the flow of report). Agree on the format (presentation, word document, excel sheet or visual dashboard) that the audience is most comfortable with upfront – this is important as it allows decision makers to focus on the content rather than the form. With the purpose, the level and the format of the reporting well-defined and understood, it becomes easier to focus on the data needs of the report.

Consideration #2: Source of Data –

Determine the sources that can provide you with reliable, accurate and updated data to generate the report. It is highly unlikely that a single source of data can give you the information necessary to prepare a management report. Data could come directly through systems (if you are lucky) but you may still need inputs from multiple people in the organization to give colour to the data.  So once you know what information needs to be captured, processed, analyzed, and reported, spend time in organizing the information processes and related systems for effective reporting. You don’t want to spend time running around fighting through organizational silos and inadequate data collection systems to get the relevant data in the format you want from the systems or following up with stakeholders endlessly for their inputs. Work with the relevant people to align the systems to your business reporting needs and ensure that the reporting process and timelines are well-defined and communicated with all the stakeholders who need to provide inputs. The quality and integrity of the data sources will determine the quality and integrity of your report.

Consideration #3: Analyzing and Interpreting the Data –

Now that you have the goal, the format and the source of data set, it is time now to extract knowledge from the data, analyze it and interpret it to a form that will lend itself to effective decision-making. With the advent of big data and business intelligence tools, there are many off-the-shelf products that promise useful insights with a few clicks. It would be really nice if things were actually that easy – nothing so far has convinced me to stop using my brain as the best tool I have at my disposal when I do my reporting :). While data and analytic tools can bring in precision and help accelerate the whole process through saved time and efforts, once data from various sources is collated and information is extracted, the real value that an individual can bring in is yes – connecting all the dots together. We need to keep in mind a few questions while sifting through the data and deciding what to present – what do the numbers/feedback/results mean? How do they impact the problems that we have on hand or that could arise and the decisions that need to be taken? What are the options we have for the actions that need to be taken? This approach needs domain experience, understanding of the organizational dynamics and analytical skills (and hence the heavy dependency on the human brain).

Consideration #4: How Much is Too Much? –

There are two parts to this – the level of detail and frequency of reporting needed. And for what to do here, you have to go back to the purpose of the report and who the primary audience is. For the first part, the reporting team needs to determine the optimal amount of details to make decisions and discard all the other data collected for “just in case” and “good to have” scenarios. Avoid reporting just for the sake of reporting – because you have the data, because you have a lot of time in your hands or you bring in your personal need to impress the management. That way, soon the cost of knowing outweighs the value of knowing. This is why I said earlier, management reporting is an art – you have to balance the how’s with the what’s to hit the “right” spot for the organization. If the report answers these three questions in the best way possible – how have we done so far, where are we headed and what we need to do to arrive at the performance objectives – you have achieved the goal of the report no matter what it is. You also have to set the reporting cadence and communication. How often do you need to generate the reports to ensure that the insights remain meaningful and not repetitive or in the other extreme – hindsight knowledge too late to do anything about? Along with the primary audience, who else would benefit or be affected from the decisions taken by the primary audience from the reported insights? These are important aspects to consider in setting up the reporting process and mechanics.

Consideration #5: Tracking Desired outcomes and Continuous improvement –

Once you get the reporting right, it is time to make it effective in reality. Set up a mechanism to track the decisions made as an outcome of your reports to ensure that all the hard work that has gone into preparing the report is not wasted. Record the minutes and the actions and ensure that the stakeholders are aware and have the additional information they need to act upon the decisions. And finally, as business environments, leadership and performance objectives change, information requirements also change over time. Hence, we need to periodically review the reporting process and the reports themselves and put them through a continuous improvement cycle to ensure that they remain effective and useful.

Does this sound like a lot of work? It is but if you get this right, you have a unique opportunity to expand your influence while supporting the goals of the management because you are helping transform data into insights – critical to creating value and ultimately, increasing the competitive advantage for the organization.

So do you still think business reporting is a boring and non value-adding activity? What unique perspective do you put into your reports ? What do you expect from the reports that your team generates for you? I would love to hear back and learn for you?

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