How to document your reports

Why are reports in big corporations so difficult to understand? Is there a way to effectively document them and make them more understandable for the business user?


The real importance of reporting

I don't understand how corporations work. Last week, during a pre-sales meeting, I met two middle managers from a corporation. We discussed the reports they use to keep track of their personal targets - reports which clearly have a direct impact on their salaries. After a while it became clear that these guys had problems understanding how the numbers on the reports were calculated. We talked a bit more and I realised that they didn't even have a clear idea what the numbers actually meant. I asked them to give me a contact to the person responsible for the calculations and even this was a problem. At least they knew which department was responsible.

During a different session in a different company, I wanted to see some reports about the performance of a particular department and the fulfillment of that department's targets. The managers told me that they received the numbers by email on a monthly basis and that they couldn't find the reports in the reporting platform being used by the company.

Bottom line: every corporation has a reporting platform. It is always a millions of dollars investment. However, people in the corporation don't use its results very much. This seems rather strange because, in theory, it's the reporting platform which should be showing each part of a company whether it's performing well or not.


What's the problem?

I've many more stories like the ones above. However, I can summarise the problems of using a reporting platform in a corporation as follows:

  • I can't find the report which I need.
  • I don't understand what the numbers presented in the report mean.
  • I don't know how the numbers in the report are calculated.
  • I don't know who is responsible for calculating the numbers.
  • I can't find a number which has already been calculated in a report, so I'm requesting the creation of a new report (or the extension of an old one).
  • I'm responsible for a report but I don't know who's really using it (if anybody).


The Consequences

The key consequences of this prevailing sorry state of affairs is that the investment pumped into the reporting platform is barely appreciated and the goal of managing a company and implementing its business goals with the help of a reporting platform remains unfulfilled.
These key consequences can be elaborated in more detail:

  • The company creates more reports than it really needs and reports contain redundant numbers. Typically a number is reported in more than one report. Very often these numbers are meant to describe the same thing but as they are calculated differently the results are different. Then people can argue endlessly whose number is the correct one.
  • People don't understand clearly what is being reported. Consequently, they don't know what they should do to improve the reported result. When a number seems odd, they can't tell whether it's because it's been calculated incorrectly or because there has been a change in the actual market.
  • The management defines what numbers are important for the company's strategy but as people are confused about how these numbers are being reported, the implementation of these strategies is both unclear and hesitant.


The Solution - The Basic Idea

Being able to understand reports is crucial for the successful fulfillment of any company's business strategy. That's why tools to help understanding should be an inherent part of each reporting platform's launch. The tool needs to be a widely-used part of the company's information system.

Semanta delivers such a tool to its customers. It's called Report Catalogue and it's a part of Semanta's broader company knowledge-base platform, Encyclopaedia. Our experience with the introduction of such a tool can be summarised as follows:

  • "think big, start small". If the company already has many working reports, it should first produce a simple overview of them. The overview should include: the report title, a brief description, who is responsible for the report, and a link to the report. With such a quick overview users can at least guess what numbers can be found where and who they should ask for them.
  • The application maintaining this overview should have a good search engine which is accessible to everybody. These days "googling" for something has become such a common part of user expectations that without a good search facility users will simply refuse to use it.
  • Linking the overview to the actual reports being listed is crucial - reporting platforms are notoriously hard to navigate and it's usually quite tricky for users to find what they're looking for in them. After the overview has been produced, most people look for their report in it and then navigate directly to it from there, instead of browsing through the reporting platform.
  • After the above-listed points have been implemented the company can then continue by picking out a few important reports and documenting them in more detail. Important items on the report should be described, the description should have two parts: what is its business meaning and how is it calculated from the data available in the company.

Solution - Further Steps

There are many other possibilities for the development of a company's report documentation and getting the maximum and most effective use out of the company's reporting platform. These ideas will be the basis of my next blog.