Our (Secret) Checklist for Producing Great Reports, Dashboards and Visualisations

Have you ever had a report built for you that is completely different than what you expected or asked for? Or worse still, asked someone to build a dashboard and it comes back as a nice visualisation of your data, but it misses the primary objective of building it in the first place? Today we are going to give away our internal checklist for creating fabulous reports, visualisations and dashboards for our clients (if you’d like a copy of the actual checklist, please let us know).

Obviously, we’re in the report, dashboard and analytics business. When we start a new gig, we’re often given a set of reports or analyses and asked to rebuild them. The first thing we ask is, “why?” This is not to be smart, but because that’s what a good consultant does!

  • Why do you need this report?
  • What’s its objective?
  • Who’s going to get it?
  • How is it to be distributed? 

Data in and of itself has little to no value. To get true value from the data it requires analysis.  In other words, your data is only as valuable as your ability to draw out actionable insights. Many organisations are rich in data and information, but poor in insights. That’s where reporting and analysis come in.

But it’s not enough just to produce a report on any data. A lot of organisations are using formal reports to simply transfer data from a database or ERP into a spreadsheet where the user then manipulates it into the report they really want! Bit dumb, huh? Something tells me that a key step in the report design process was missing!

Today, we’re going to cover a checklist we use at Infocube when facilitating workshops to define reports, dashboard and visualisation content. This checklist is a great starting point and should be used to provoke thought.

The “What” of Great Reports

Great reporting starts with a purpose and with the end in mind. It’s at this point I hear a lot of organisations say, “yeah, yeah, yeah, John, I know, let’s get to into the layout, how often we should report, and how we can get a pretty graph at the bottom.” Many organisations just skip right over this step and it’s a key reason their results fail to hit the mark. It means you end up with your reports being dumped out to excel where the real report is created!

Clearly, state the purpose of the report or analysis. Ask, what does the reader need to get from the report? A good response is, “understand what products the major customers of a rep bought this time last year”. Why? Because say you are in a seasonal business when armed with this information the rep can go see their customers and prompt them for an order.

Or alternatively, for a cash flow forecast, “calculate the short-term cash required on a weekly basis”.

When you’ve completed the design and then when you’ve built your report, circle back and check if your report answers the purpose you stated. If it doesn’t, then either change the purpose or change the report!

Maybe it’s really “the Why”!

When we understand the “why” of reporting, determining the “what, where, who and how” becomes a lot easier. The purpose of collecting data is to derive value. You can think of this value chain as:

Data > Reporting > Analysis > Insights > Action > Value

Looking at the value chain, you can see that reporting becomes the input to analysis and output of our data. It serves as a bridge between data and value so that you can analyse it and derive meaningful insights that are relevant and important to your business.

So what reports do you need to produce? This should vary based on your company’s most important metrics and objectives.

A common pitfall we see is when a company brings an executive or manager from another organisation and they insist on creating reports the other organisation used. These reports often don’t align with the company’s objectives.

Another error is picking too many metrics or producing reports for the sake of creating reports. They have a report for everything. A report for customer profitability, a report for marketing plans, and a report for toilet paper use.

Remember, reports arenot the analysis itself, they are just the input to analysis. Have you ever read a great blog post and thought “we can do that”, and then done nothing? Producing reports without doing any value add analysis is the same as reading and not acting on that great blog (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!).

We see some organisations produce 40+ reports for the CFO, but the CFO has no time to analyse them. When the CFO finally gets around to the reports, the data is often redundant and ignored. This brings me to the “who” of great reports.

The “Who” of Great Reports

The next step is to figure out the “who” of reporting:

  • Who will be the consumer or end-user?
  • Who will be the owner?
  • Who will be responsible for producing the reports?

Most organisations have heaps of KPIs that need to be reported on and analysed. Each department has their own KPIs and each team within a department often has their own KPIs. For example, it’s common for the finance department to have one set of KPIs and the procurement team to have another set. That’s okay, but remember what the “K” stands for!

When determining the who, make sure you define a person or group for whom the reports are being produced. The keyword “a”. Make it singular. It might be the CFO. It might be the marketing team. Or it might be someone in IT. Other’s may benefit from the report, but it needs a focus consumer.

This will help you shape how you plan to organise the data or whether or not you allow for self-reporting.  With the democratisation of data, people and teams within your company can produce their own reports and analyse them. They can get the data faster and on their own timeframe.

Lastly, make sure there is one person, just one, who will be the report owner. It is their call on signing off on it, reconciling it, checking the layout, and ensuring it meets the stated objective.

The “How” of Reports

This is where a lot of organisations like to focus their time. As a result, they build reports that don’t answer their organisation’s most critical questions. When you ask the what and who first, the answer to, “how will we produce these reports so that we can get what we need,” becomes clear. You’ll know how often reporting should be, how to distribute the report, how to format the layout, what sort of filters and prompts to use, and more.

What’s not on our checklist is determining which software or reporting tool to use. That’s because the tool you use is only as good as your ability to answer the what, who, and how of reporting.

You could have the best reporting or visualisation software, like Cognos, Tableau, or Board, but it won’t matter if you don’t answer the what, who and how of reporting. CFOs are struggling to gain insights from data because of outdated processes and data availability across the organisation.

So ask yourself:

  • What question is a report trying to answer?
  • Who will own it and who needs it?
  • How will you provide that information?

By answering these questions, you improve your value chain and ability to get value from your data.The Infocube Reporting, Visualisation and Dashboard checklist is a fantastic tool for brainstorming what to include and how to deliver information. If you’d like a copy of our “secret” checklist please pop us an email or just fill in the form below!

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John Vaughan

John Vaughan is a highly experienced Accountant and Consultant. He has experience in the pharmaceutical, FMCG, distribution, professional services, manufacturing and financial service industries. With over 25 years of commercial experience and 20 years working with the Cognos products, he...

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