Data reporting is a central part of many jobs, even outside the realm of data analytics. Unfortunately, most reports end up being inaccurate, misleading, or hard to understand, defeating the purpose of reports and sometimes causing long-term complications.
Why do so many businesses approach reporting the “wrong” way and what can be done about it?
The Goals of Reporting
According to Cetaris, reporting efforts are usually in service to some combination of the following goals:
- Provide information. Every report should provide information to an interested party. The nature of that information is going to depend on the type of report being submitted and the context in which it is submitted. That said, the report should convey this information as concisely and effectively as possible; if the information is confusing or misleading, this goal is severely undermined.
- Influence decisions. In most contexts, reports are designed to influence decisions in some way. A team leader might use reports to make resource allocation decisions, executives may use reports to come up with new strategies, and marketers may use reports to determine whether or not they should continue using the same strategy.
- Do so efficiently. As a modifier of the above two goals, ongoing reporting should also prioritize efficiency. All information presented should be optimized for accuracy and concise, effective messaging, and the report should be generated in as little time as possible, with as little waste as possible.
Where Most Companies Go Wrong
Where do most companies go wrong with reporting?
- Goal confusion or ambiguity. Goal ambiguity is a leading cause of employee dissatisfaction. It’s also a major hindrance for the organization at large. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the leading reasons why reporting is inefficient. If the people producing the reports don’t know what the goals of the report are, they’re not going to make an effective report. If the person reading a report doesn’t fully understand why they’re reading it or what kind of information they’re looking for, they’re going to end up wasting time. The best way to fix this problem is to clarify a specific goal for each report generated within your organization. What, specifically, are you trying to accomplish? If you don’t know, or if you end up with an ambiguous answer like “just checking vitals,” rethink your reporting strategy.
- Inefficient platforms. Many report generators complain about inefficient platforms that make the generation of reports slow, tedious, or otherwise a total pain. There are many factors that can influence this inconvenience, such as a UI that isn’t user friendly, inconsistent report generation tools, or a surplus of options that leave users confused about what they’re supposed to do. Intuitive, robust tools that allow for automation and scheduling are ideal here.
- Excessive consistency. Consistency is good for a reporting strategy, but only to an extent. If you make your process too rigid and consistent, you rob individuals of their ability to customize their reports for efficient information conveyance – and make it harder for them to deliver those reports effectively. For example, if you have an employee who simply follows a template for a weekly report, the people reviewing that report may end up ignoring it, even if there are important pieces of data to review. The way around this is to empower individual employees to modify reporting strategies, templates, or delivery frequencies as they see fit.
- Over-reliance on data visuals. Data visualization can be a useful tool, but it can also work against you. If you use the wrong type of graph, or if you present too many or too few variables, it’s going to be hard for the person reading the report to draw an accurate or meaningful conclusion. Still, visuals are the best way to make complex sets of data more intuitive and sensible to people who aren’t data analysts. The solution is to use data visuals carefully and strategically – in other words, only using them when necessary.
- Failure to adjust for the audience. Many of the strategies in this guide are meant to be universally applicable, but one common mistake made by report generators is failing to adjust for the person reading the report. Different people have different levels of familiarity with data analytics, and some people may not be familiar with the topic on which you’re reporting. Always make tweaks to relieve the burden of the reader.
- Report saturation. There’s such a thing as report saturation, in which your company generates far too many reports. This is a waste of time that can be easily resolved by focusing only on the reports that are most valuable. Attempt to calculate the “value” of each report based on the quality of the information contained within, the impact the report has on major decisions, and the potential influence those decisions could have.
- Report droughts. Inversely, there are report droughts, in which decision makers don’t have enough available data to make effective decisions. This can be a difficult problem to solve, as you don’t want to generate more reports for the sake of generating reports. Instead, you should work backward; what types of decisions does your company need to make? What information would facilitate better decisions in that area? How can you report to effectively convey that information?
- Lack of authority or expertise in presentation. Reports are at their most effective when they’re delivered or presented by people with genuine authority or expertise in this field. If the reporter genuinely doesn’t understand what’s important about these metrics, or worse, if they simply hand off the report without any context or commentary, it’s going to be a problem. Make sure you have the right people leading your reporting.
- Inactionable insights. Every insight you generate from a report should be actionable. In other words, it’s more than just a fun piece of trivia – it’s something that can inspire a decision or a change within the organization. If there aren’t any actionable insights to be found, the report may not be strictly necessary.
- Failure to adapt. Reporting strategies should be organic and ever-evolving, as the data available to your organization changes. Remain open to new tools and new strategies if you want to keep adapting.
If you’re currently making some of these reporting mistakes, don’t feel too bad. The majority of active report generators in businesses across the United States are making them too. Recognize this as an opportunity to learn, grow, and shift your reporting strategy – so you can waste less time and achieve more meaningful, measurable results.