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Five Considerations to Transform Data into Insights through Effective Business Reporting

Five Considerations to Transform Data into Insights through Effective Business Reporting

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?

Picture Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/26341587@N04/4280203413/

Five Tips to Navigate your Way Successfully through Matrix Organizations

Five Tips to Navigate your Way Successfully through Matrix Organizations

If you are an employee in a large organization, a freelancer or a consultant, you have probably worked in the matrix structure without being fully aware about it. A matrix structure is usually a combination of a vertical (product/service P&L Unit) and a horizontal function (Finance, Marketing, HR, IT, etc) and is implemented to facilitate balanced decision-making and flexibility.  In other words – welcome to working in complexity where you may have all the responsibility but without the necessary authority.

More and more companies are gravitating towards matrix organizations to deal with the increasingly dynamic and chaotic work environments. Gartner highlighted these changes in their predictions for the world of work in this decade:

“Work will become less routine, characterized by increased volatility, hyper connectedness, ‘swarming‘ and more,” said Tom Austin, vice president and Gartner fellow. By 2015, 40 percent or more of an organization’s work will be ‘non-routine’, up from 25 percent in 2010. “People will swarm more often and work solo less. They’ll work with others with whom they have few links, and teams will include people outside the control of the organization,” he added. “In addition, simulation, visualisation and unification technologies, working across yottabytes of data per second, will demand an emphasis on new perceptual skills.”

Sounds familiar? If you are in the business management/operations role like me, this style of working is the norm and not the exception and it needs some special skills and abilities to successfully navigate your way through the organization. Based on what has worked for me and what hasn’t, I have put together my five working tips that help in adapting and being effective (and happy) in working in roles that give you responsibility without immediately clear authority:

Working Tip #1 – Know what you need to achieve:

This is rule number one – Knowing what you need to achieve before you embark on an initiative involving different teams helps you to keep your eyes on your goal and not get blind-sided by the priorities of the other teams. Of course the ultimate goal would be the one that the organisation has set and has necessitated the working in the matrix structure and you need to be aligned to that  but you also are solely responsible for your part of the whole and that is why in every meeting or interaction, it is necessary for you to remember that. This helps you to ensure that the working plan is moving towards that goal at all times and give your inputs with that clarity when it is time for group decision-making (helps combat “groupitis” or death by committee scenarios).

Working Tip #2 – Let go of the need to be liked:

The desire to be liked, to be popular is a very strong human driver and this is quite normal. But be careful that this does not become a “need” that drives the way you operate at work. It leads to making compromises that you are not comfortable with because they are not aligned to your internal ethical compass. Don’t go with the herd mentality because you are afraid that speaking up or standing up for something will make you unpopular. Not everyone everywhere will like you and that’s okay – you are not at work to win a popularity contest. Just treat everyone with respect (the way you would want to be treated by others) and focus on the work. You will get more done and be happier too.

Working Tip #3 – Sharpen your conflict-management skills:  

You have to be comfortable with conflict as it is a given in situations where people from different functions or roles need to work together. Understanding conflict management techniques is important to reach a resolution quickly (and with the least amount of blood-bath). To quote of one of my favourite leadership bloggers, Mike Myatt, from his post on workplace conflicts

“Don’t fear conflict; embrace it – it’s your job. While you can try and avoid conflict (bad idea), you cannot escape conflict. The fact of the matter is conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it (good idea – more later) or not. The ability to recognize conflict, understand the nature of conflict, and to be able to bring swift and just resolution to conflict will serve you well as a leader – the inability to do so may well be your downfall.”

And also, you need to be wise enough to pick your battles with care.

Working Tip #4 – Escalation is not the best solution:

Don’t be trigger happy with hitting the escalation button. This should be your last option when working in a matrix organization and there are many reasons for this – the main one being that trust and teamwork is the foundation for a successful matrix organization. And a blame-game attitude poisons the foundation pretty fast. (Pardon me for all the “killing” analogies – it is a side-effect of working in the corporate world for so long :)).

Moreover an escalation may not work as the final decision-making authority would not be your immediate superior – in a matrix org, it is usually the CEO or a level lower than her and do you really want to go whining all the way there when you have other options to make things work ? Also by escalating, you let go of all the influence that you have managed to build so far – and influence trumps authority to get things done in complex organizations.

Working Tip #5 – Communication is key:

I have saved this for the last as it is a common thread for all the earlier tips. For you to be successful in a matrix organization – you have to get personal. You have to take the time to know every person that you are working with directly or indirectly – their strengths and weakness, their goals and needs. Strive to understand before being understood. And for that you have to communicate. Be open and transparent about yourself. Listen. Interact. Absorb. Empathize. Thank often. Criticize less. Give credit often. Build relationships. Pick up the phone when emails seem to be getting shorter and cc lists getting longer. Meet up/Video when you think phone conversations and calls seems to be getting you nowhere. Communication helps break down the vertical and horizontal silos, improves relationships and creates an effective “groupthink” environment that further promotes teamwork and trust.

I believe that these are skills that can be developed and honed and really help in leading and working in a matrix operating environment. And ALWAYS in your work, as Seth Godin says – Be open, generous and connected:

Open to new ideas, leaning forward, exploring the edges, impatient with the status quo… In a hurry to make something worth making.

Generous when given the opportunity (or restless to find the opportunity when not). Focused on giving people dignity, respect and the chance to speak up. Aware that the single most effective way to move forward is to help others move forward as well.

and connected. Part of the community, not apart from it. Hooked into the realities and dreams of the tribe. Able and interested in not only cheering people on, but shining a light on how they can accomplish their goals.

What do you think?  Have you come across any challenges while working in matrix organizations ? What makes you lose your cool and what helps you get your “balance” back? Have these tips worked for you ? I would love to hear and learn from you.

Pic Courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecorey/7281531296/