The Three Rules of Reports

They must be accurate, sufficiently detailed, and ... pretty?

There is a lot of information locked up in your ERP system. Your ERP usually has all your customer orders, all the POs to your vendors, your G/L, A/R and A/P, inventory information, manufacturing information, but getting to that information in a meaningful way can be very difficult.

Many companies operate off of a set of standard reports that report on operations and financial status. Standard reports might include order cycle times, inventory turns, income and balance statements, cash flow reports, etc.

Despite the number of reports a company has available, someone, somewhere will want to look at the company's data in some other way. So, you have to create a report.

Most IT people will take a report request like "show me all sales of product line A in the Western Region, and allow me to select the time frame" and create a report that does exactly that. They will guess at the columns that need to be displayed. They will put up some sort of dialog box to capture the dates, and will have a "start date" and a "through date." Then, they will query the database and dump the result on the screen or on paper, with column names cut off and lots and lots of white space where 40 character long fields are shown in their entirety, even though most of the actual entries in the table are maybe 20 characters long.

All the transactions are listed, and since the company is blessed with lots of sales, the report is about twenty pages. All the sales are listed for the time span entered, only for product line A, just exactly as requested.

The report is accurate. Yet, the requester is upset. What could have happened?

There are three iron clad rules for report creation that you need to follow:

1. The report has to be accurate.

2. The report must be at the correct level of detail.

3. The report must be pretty.

People always laugh at that last rule. Yet, one CFO I told this to moved number 3 to number 1. Pretty first, then accurate!

Most people, when they create a report, are aware of rule 1. After all, accuracy is part of the DNA of an IT person. Computers are unforgiving, and you get to think in binary terms - it is there, or not there. If a report is off by a penny, it is 100% off. It is wrong. If it is off by a penny, it could also be off by $1 million. Doesn't matter - it is off.

Rule 2 is very important, but it requires a concerted effort to get to the right level. In the above request, the requester may have wanted a single number: "the sales of product line A in the Western Region for Q4 was $4 million." He probably does not want to see every transaction, just the total. Yet, he got twenty pages.

Rule 3 is always overlooked, except by marketing people. The report needs to show the accurate data at the needed detail, but also in a way that can be easily seen and digested, and can be given to a customer if need be. Oddly enough, this last rule takes the most time. A properly constructed query can take only a few minutes to put together, but getting that raw data into a format that is digestible by non-techie (or back-office) people takes time. An IT person mentally fills in the gaps when he sees a column header named "Custno" or "Descr", or sees long descriptions cut off. That will not fly with business users. Nor should it. The report is showing something about the business, and it should be professional. By the way, inaccuracies in presentation imply inaccuracies in data, which is another reason to have the report look good.

Keep this in mind the next time you have to create a report - or are reading one.

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